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Wrangling over disputed House race plays out in committee

DES MOINES — Legal arguments over a disputed northeast Iowa legislative race were aired during a two-and-a-half hour statehouse meeting Wednesday — offering a preview of the wrangling that’s ahead.

Republican Representative Michael Bergen of Dorchester defeated Democrat Kayla Koether of Decorah by nine votes. In December, a judge ordered Winneshiek County’s Auditor to have the Postal Service check its bar codes on a batch of uncounted ballots that didn’t have traditional postmarks — and 29 were mailed before the deadline.

Shayla McCormally, the lawyer for the Democratic challenger, said those Iowans are being disenfranchised.

“This is about 29 voters who have not had their votes counted,” she said, “who followed the law by placing them in the federal mail system as they were supposed to.”

Matthew McDermott, the attorney for the Republican incumbent, said Winneshiek County’s Auditor did not subscribe to a U.S. Postal Service tracking program to determine when the ballots were mailed and state law does not allow the kind of bar code “sprayed” on the ballots to be used.

“I believe the law is very clear as to which absentee ballots can be counted and which ones can’t,” he said.

Representative Steven Holt of Denison is one of three Republicans on the House committee appointed this week to review the dispute. He stressed the need to follow the rule of law.

“Follow the facts where they lead and don’t change the rules in the middle of the game,” Holt said, “because ultimately that is not fair to anyone.”

Representative Mary Wolfe of Clinton, one of two Democrats on the panel, said it appears to her the 29 Iowans “did everything right.”

“They did mail their ballots in on time and had a reasonable expectation that they would be counted,” Wolfe said.

The committee will not meet again this week. It’s unclear whether the panel will hear from witnesses or review evidence before drafting a report to the full House, which will vote on the election challenge. A key Democrat has already predicted the case will likely be challenged all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court.


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