Iowa’s 2nd District race is uncalled and separated by less than 300 votes, what happens next?

The Republican candidate leads in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District by just 282 votes.

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Kate Heston

U.S. Congressional candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks approaches the stage at the Riverside Casino after winning the election against her opponent, D. Rita Hart, Tuesday night.

Natalie Dunlap and Lillian Poulsen


The election on Tuesday, Nov. 3 left Iowans feeling uncertain about who claimed the highly contested Iowa 2nd Congressional District seat. With thousands of ballots still not counted in this district, it might be several days before Iowans know who officially won.

Shortly after midnight on election night, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, the Republican candidate for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, surpassed her Democratic opponent, Rita Hart, as the last counties in the district reported their unofficial tallies. Hart started Tuesday night with a healthy lead, but as more votes came in, her advantage faded. Miller-Meeks ended up with just 282 more votes than Hart. The Associated Press, which calls races after the trailing candidate cannot make up the margin to overtake the winner, hasn’t yet declared a winner in Iowa’s 2nd District.

Per Iowa code, absentee ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 2 and received at the county’s auditor’s office by noon on Nov. 9, Kevin Hall, the Communications Director in the Office of Iowa’s Secretary of State, told The Daily Iowan in an email. Iowa is one of 21 states plus the District of Columbia that accepts absentee ballots after Election Day that were postmarked ahead of time. Iowa isn’t alone — 40 House seats still weren’t called by the New York Times tracker Wednesday night.

With such a thin lead and absentee ballots not all accounted for, the District is still too close to call. Hall said 12,490 absentee ballots that had been sent to voters in the 2nd District that had not been returned to county auditors by the morning of Nov 4.

Despite these outstanding ballots, mostly from Democrats, Miller-Meeks claimed victory on election night. Miller-Meeks’ campaign said they expect her to retain the victory after the ballots are counted.

RELATED: Mariannette Miller-Meeks holds razor thin lead over Rita Hart in 2nd District 

It is worth noting that some voters may have received an absentee ballot, but decided to vote in-person. In 2016, by Nov. 8 vote certification, 10,110 ballots in the 2nd District were sent out by county auditors but never returned.

The Hart campaign is still waiting on outstanding ballots, and hasn’t conceded the race. As previously reported in The Daily Iowan,  Hart’s campaign sent out a press release at 1:14 a.m. on Nov. 4 with a statement from Zach Meunier, Hart’s campaign manager, addressing the close results.

“Ballots are outstanding and over the coming days we will ensure that Iowans’ voices are heard and that remaining votes are counted,” Meunier said. “Iowa election law is incredibly clear that absentee ballots postmarked by the day before the election and received by a county auditor by November 9, 2020 must be counted.”

According to a breakdown of absentee statistics as of Tuesday morning, Democrats in the 2nd District had returned 95.1 percent of their ballots to their auditors, and Republicans had returned 96.5 percent of their ballots. This leaves Democrats with 6,336 outstanding ballots and Republicans with 2,905 outstanding ballots. No-party voters in the district have returned 94.8 percent of ballots, and have 3,161 outstanding ballots.

Neither candidate has indicated they plan to ask for a recount once the results are certified next week. In Iowa, there is no margin that would automatically trigger a recount — instead, candidates must make a written request by 5 p.m. three days after the county board of canvasser’s canvass.

Chris Larimer, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, said he’s seen these types of close races for smaller elections, such as state Legislature seats, but that in an election where nearly 400,000 people voted, this is “pretty unique.” He considered the 2018 Congressional race in Iowa’s 3rd District to be close, and Democrat Cindy Axne beat Republican David Young with 7,709 votes.

“I think it’s just a reflection of the rural-urban divide that we see in Iowa,” Larimer said of the small margin. “If we look at the first, second, and third districts, the Democrats are winning the urban counties, Republicans are winning rural counties and that’s essentially what we see in that second district.”

RELATED: Hinson flips 1st District red

According to results on the Secretary of State’s website, as of 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Hart won in Johnson, Jefferson, Scott, and Clinton County. Miller-Meeks won in the other 20 counties.

University of Iowa Professor and former Representative of the 2nd District Jim Leach said he’s confident in Iowa’s ability to fairly count the ballots as soon as possible.

“In Iowa, I have 100 percent confidence in the integrity of the poll watchers and those who count the ballots,” Leach said. “I have 100 percent confidence in the Democrats and 100 percent confidence in the Republicans.”

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