By James Grob, firstname.lastname@example.org
One month after the election, there’s still one race in Iowa that is yet to be decided.
That race has drawn Todd Prichard, a Charles City Democrat, into his first political battle as the new Iowa House minority leader — and Prichard won’t even officially take the post until next month.
“This is my first political battle and first legal battle as minority leader,” Prichard said. “The bottom line is, this is about election integrity.”
Prichard owns Prichard Law Office in Charles City and has practiced law in the community since 2004. He was chosen to replace Mark Smith of Marshalltown as minority leader when when the House Democratic caucus met last month in Des Moines. He will start his fourth term in the Iowa House when the next legislative session begins in January. Prichard represents Iowa House District 52, which consists of Floyd, Chickasaw and the eastern third of Cerro Gordo counties.
As minority leader, Prichard is the chief spokesperson for the party on issues, and the contested house race in nearby Winneshiek County in northeast Iowa is a big one. Last week, Democrat Kayla Koether — Democratic candidate in Iowa House District 55 — sued Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and Winneshiek County Auditor Ben Steines after they refused to count 33 mailed-in ballots in her race against Republican state Rep. Michael Bergan. Steines and Pate said the envelopes lacked a postmark that would indicate when they were mailed. Koether trails Bergan in the election by just nine votes out of more than 14,000 cast in the northeast Iowa district that includes Clayton, Fayette and Winneshiek counties.
“I come at this as an Iraq war vet,” said Prichard, who holds the rank of Major in the U.S. Army Reserve, served in the Army and has been deployed four times, including a tour in Iraq. “One of our biggest duties was to protect and promote legitimate elections. This situation flies in the face of that, and in the face of common sense.”
State law states that absentee ballots must be mailed no later than the day before the election to be counted. For ballots that arrive after Election Day, the law says officials can use either the postmark or an “intelligent mail barcode” to determine whether it was mailed on time. Court records indicate the envelopes containing the 33 ballots in question may have been too thick to run through the postmark machine. The envelopes do, however, contain a postal bar code on a lower edge that would likely show when they were mailed. A court ruling Monday gave Koether the right to determine whether the uncounted ballots were mailed on time.
“If the ballots were properly and timely mailed, the votes need to count,” Prichard said. “I’m disappointed it’s been so difficult to get the election officials to do what should be clear and obvious.”
Pate and Steines disagree, and argue that an “intelligent mail barcode” is a code that a county election official would place on the envelope. Only six of Iowa’s 99 counties use such a bar code to track absentee ballots.
“Absentee ballots that arrive after Election Day and do not contain postmarks, nor a county-specific Intelligent Mail Barcode, are not eligible to be counted,” Pate said.
“We think that guidance from the Secretary of State’s office is incorrect,” Prichard said.
More than 547,000 Iowans voted absentee in the recent election, when Democrats picked up five Iowa House seats to narrow Republican control, 53 to 46, excluding the contested seat. Pate’s position calls into question whether there were more votes — perhaps thousands of more votes — that were valid but never counted. Iowa officials acknowledge that the Postal Service does not put postmarks on all ballots, but it’s not clear how many ballots statewide might not have been counted because they lacked postmarks. A spokesman for Pate said the office does not know.
“Most elections aren’t this close, so they don’t receive the scrutiny this one has,” said Prichard, who added that the uncounted ballots are not a result of voter error, or even post office error. “It’s standard processing for the post office.”
On Monday, Polk County Judge Scott Beattie ordered officials to preserve the ballots and determine whether they were mailed on time. He did not rule on whether the ballots would ultimately be counted, and said that issue could be argued in court later.
“I look at it from a voter’s standpoint,” Prichard said. “If these were my ballots, I’d want them to be counted.”
The order requires Steines to work with the Postal Service to determine whether the postal bar codes contain the date ballots were placed in the mail, and if so, the information must be provided to the court and attorneys by Friday.
“The judge ruled that the ballots need to be preserved and the information from the bar codes needs to be made known,” Prichard said. “The bar code should have that information as to when the ballots entered the mail stream.”
Pate, however, said on Monday that Steines followed that law, and the Iowa State Canvassing Board officially certified the election results.
“Early this morning, the Honorable Scott J. Beattie issued his order denying Ms. Koether’s request to delay the certification of the November 6 election. Today, we officially certified those results,” Pate’s office said in a statement. “Winneshiek County Auditor Ben Steines followed the law. Iowa Code is clear on this matter.”
All the 33 ballots in question were received the day after the election. Prichard believes that would indicate they were likely mailed the day before the election, making them valid. He said that mail from Winneshiek County is processed in Waterloo, then returned to the county.
Prichard said that no one knows which candidates are checked on the ballots, so no one knows whether there would be enough votes for Koether to make up the nine-vote difference.
“We really have no idea what would happen with the final vote count,” Prichard said. “The larger issue is, every vote matters. If we’re serious about that, count the votes that were cast. It’s that simple.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)