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Luana Stoltenberg Wins Iowa House District by Just 11 Votes

The final tallies of the District 81 race recount showed Stoltenberg with 5,073 votes while Democrat Craig Cooper had 5,062, resulting in a flipped winner from the initial count. The win gives the GOP a 64-36 House majority.

(TNS) — Nearly a month after Election Day, voters in Scott County, Iowa, may finally have an answer to who won a back-and-forth Davenport House race with a razor-thin margin.

Democrat Craig Cooper congratulated Republican Luana Stoltenberg on winning House District 81 Wednesday after a candidate-picked recount board finished with Stoltenberg ahead by 11 votes.

This is the second time the winner of the race flipped after recounts, the first after an auditor-run recount and this time once the candidate-picked board wrapped up its work.

The three board members signed off on the recount results Wednesday after more than a week of sorting and counting. Their final tallies showed Stoltenberg with 5,073 votes to Cooper's 5,062 votes. Compared to the auditor's count, the recount board's totals showed 31 fewer votes for Cooper and 14 fewer votes for Stoltenberg.

Jim Hancock, a former Democratic Scott County Supervisor who both the candidates selected to serve on the board, said he was "100 percent comfortable" with the results they submitted to the county auditor, which had 45 fewer absentee ballots in the race than the county auditor's count.

"Our process, I'm 100 percent comfortable with it — we are," Hancock said, gesturing to the other two recount board members, who both nodded.

The recount board's count is the final count, Scott County Auditor Kerri Tompkins said, which will then go to the Scott County Board of Supervisors and state elections board to certify.

Stoltenberg said she's excited, but the news still is sinking in.

"My first priority is trying to catch up because we've been here for how many weeks," Stoltenberg said.

With the result, the GOP will hold a 64-36 majority in the statehouse.

Of the recount process, Stoltenberg said overall it went well and thanked the volunteer recount board for their time. But, she said the recount process needs "more defined lines and boundaries and a few more defined rules so candidates know where they stand."

Cooper said he was disappointed in the outcome but thought the recount board members did "fantastic." When asked about whether he would challenge the recount, he said: "that's a better question for later."

"There were 31 votes that just simply disappeared," Cooper said of the discrepancy between the recount's vote tallies for him and the auditor's. "I have no idea whether the ballots weren't run or whether the ballots never existed."

Members of the recount board and the Scott County Auditor both said they were confident in their counts, and declined to speculate on why the counts were different.

In other legislative races in the state, recounts changed a margin by five or fewer votes, according to reporting from Bleeding Heartland and the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Recounts rarely change an outcome in a race.

University of Iowa law professor Derek Muller, who served on a recount board in Johnson County in a close 2020 race between Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Rita Hart, said Cooper could bring a challenge of the recount results to the House of Representatives, but it would be difficult.

"Unless he can point to a specific error, it's going to be a really heavy lift to try to convince the House to reject the certification of the results," Muller said.

Muller added that 45 fewer ballots struck him as higher than normal, but that the decision rests with the recount board on whether to try to account for the discrepancy during the recount.

"Absentee precincts are the largest, so that's a messier place to process things and identify with any precision where those ballots came from," Muller said. "If the recount board decided to be more diligent, they would go back and look. Or they can say 'that's that.' "

"Generally, recount results are consistent, but not always and not always precisely. In the grand scheme of things, 45 is not that much of 10,000 votes cast, but in a margin of 9 or 11 votes, it seems like a lot."

Muller added that mistakes can happen during a count, such as ballots are run through twice or missed, and that a recount tries to reconcile the numbers. In Johnson County in 2020, the board missed a ballot on a first count, but managed to find it during the process, he said.

The recount marks what appears to be the end of a roller coaster of recounts in the close race.

On election night, Stoltenberg appeared to be ahead of Cooper by 29 votes. Then, the county auditor and Iowa Secretary of State said they found that hundreds of the county's absentee ballots had not been counted, and he auditor conducted an administrative absentee ballot recount.

After several counts of all the county's absentee ballots by hand and machine, Tompkins reported "100 percent confidence" in the absentee ballot totals. By Tompkins' count, in House District 81, Cooper won the race by six votes.

The margin fell well within the margin for a candidate to ask for a recount, which Stoltenberg did.

The two candidates selected members of a bipartisan recount board to do the recount. Cooper selected former Scott County attorney Bill Davis, Stoltenberg selected former Scott County supervisor Diane Holst, and both candidates settled on Hancock, a Democrat, as the third member of the recount board.

The recount board started with sorting through absentee ballots, running them through an elections machine and checking the totals by hand. By the end, the recount board counted 47 fewer absentee ballots cast in House District 81 race than the county auditor's totals.

The board moved on to recount ballots cast in-person on Election Day, of which all the totals matched the tallies counted on Election Day, according to the board members.

After wrapping up the count there, the two Democrats on the board supported returning to go through two boxes of absentee ballots. The members said the board's hand count didn't match the board's machine totals on two of the boxes.

This move initially drew a frustrated reaction by the Republican County Chair Jeanita McNulty, who accused the two Democrats of "holding the recount hostage" and questioned why they wanted to go through absentee ballots again after they had already signed off on the numbers and when it appeared Stoltenberg was ahead.

After sorting through two agreed-upon boxes, Davis found two ballots with the House District 81 race that had not been counted. Both were votes for Stoltenberg.

"As requested, we appeared and endeavored to count every single vote, which we did," a statement signed by the three board members stated. "After being concerned that we were not getting all the votes, we returned to the absentee ballots and rechecked those lots of uncounted ballots (non HD81 race) to determine if there was in fact any ballots not separated for the HD81 race. We found two uncounted votes for HD81 in box #1. All of the election day precinct votes, ten precincts total, were found to be accurate. All of the issues were found to be in the absentee counting location."

When asked about why the board's count was different from the auditor's, Davis said: "I'm not going to speculate. There's all kinds of theories and mine would be no different than the guy down the street."

Asked about whether there could be missed ballots in other boxes, Davis said: "If we thought that, we wouldn't be here talking to you. We'd be going through those boxes."

In a candidate-requested recount, the county auditor's office serves as a custodian of ballots, but doesn't run the recount. Tompkins reiterated that she's "100 percent confident" in the administrative recount processes, but that she would follow the process to send the recount board's numbers to be certified.

"I can tell you that I'm very confident in our practices. We know that we put them in the bundles and 100 went in and they counted that. So, I am 100 percent confident in ours, and I observed I know that that process was different."

(c)2022 Quad City Times, Davenport, Iowa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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