The fight over Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District is growing more contentious as a panel in the U.S. House of Representatives begins to review its razor-thin election results.
After a districtwide recount showed her winning by six votes, Congress provisionally seated Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks pending a challenge from Democrat Rita Hart.
Here’s a look at what you need to know as her challenge moves forward.
How did we get here?
The District – Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District in 2020 was an open seat vacated by retired U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack.
The Election – On election night, the Associated Press said the race was too close to call. At the time, Miller-Meeks was ahead by fewer than 300 votes. Following reports of data entry errors that misallocated more than 300 extra votes to Miller-Meeks, Hart called for a full recount of the district’s 24 counties.
The Recount – Iowa Code delegates the administration of recounts to ad hoc county recount commissions consisting of two members appointed by both campaigns and a third member who the campaigns mutually agreed upon. Across the 24 counties, processes varied widely. Jefferson County did a full-hand recount, while Marion did a recount by machine. Others, like Johnson County, chose a method making use of both highspeed vote-counting machines and hand count procedures
When the dust settled at the end of November, Miller-Meeks was still ahead, now by just six votes. Her victory was unanimously certified by the State Canvassing Board, which consists of three Republicans (Gov. Kim Reynolds, Secretary of State Paul Pate and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig) and two Democrats (Auditor Rob Sand and Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald).
The Challenge – Days after the election was certified, Hart announced she would petition Congress to investigate the six-vote margin under the Federal Contested Election Act. Her jump to Congress surprised and frustrated some, because it bypassed the courts and put the decision in the hands of a partisan committee.
The Decision – The U.S. Committee on House Administration voted to table a motion to dismiss Hart’s challenge and instead chose to move forward with a fact-finding process. Both campaigns have submitted answers to the committee’s questions, and they have until March 29 to submit replies. The committee has not outlined a timeline or structure for how it intends to proceed.
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And why is the U.S. House considering it?
The Federal Contested Elections Act of 1969 gives candidates for the U.S. House a process for appealing their losses. It points these challenges at the Committee on House Administration.
“The margin separating the two candidates was only six votes out of almost 400,000 cast: less than 1/6 of 1%. That’s six votes — not 6,000; not 600; not 60 or even 16 — just six fewer votes than we have members of this committee,” Chair Zoe Lofgren, D-California, told committee members. “… It should not be surprising that any candidate in these circumstances — with a margin this close — would seek to exercise their rights under the law to contest the results.”
While Lofgren and House Democrats control the committee, its Republican members oppose taking the issue up. The committee’s ranking member, Rodney Davis (R-Illinois) pointed out that Miller-Meeks’ election included a recount, a bipartisan canvassing of the ballots cast in the race and had an option to appeal those results through the state’s court system — a step Hart chose not to utilize.
“It will be one of the greatest mistakes this House makes to take up an election contest with a candidate who side-stepped the courts and instead turned to a partisan process in the House because they knew they could not win any other way,” Davis said. “Sounds familiar doesn’t it?”
Still with Democrats in the majority, the committee is moving forward to consider Hart’s challenge.
What is Hart’s challenge based on?
Hart’s case is built on 22 uncounted ballots. She claims that those ballots were legally cast and unlawfully excluded from the state’s certified results in the district.
The 22 ballots come from five different counties and differ widely in terms of the circumstances that allegedly led them to be kept out of the count. In two cases, Hart’s petition alleges voters dropped ballots off with election officials who set them aside without counting them. In another, she says an absentee ballot was rejected because the signature was on the wrong part of the envelope. In aggregate, these ballots would put Hart ahead if they were counted.
Hart is also asking Congress to conduct a new recount, this time by hand. Only Jefferson County did a hand recount in November. All other counties used high-speed vote tabulators to some extent. The campaign cites Maxwell Palmer, a professor of political and computer science at Boston University, who estimated that counting machine errors could account for as many as 38 validly cast ballots for either candidate.
The only way to be sure, the campaign argues, is a full hand recount of the nearly 400,000 ballots.
Has this happened before?
Yes. Many candidates who’ve lost elections — particularly close ones — have appealed to Congress.
Between 1933 and 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives considered 107 contested election cases, according to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report. The vast majority of these challenges were dismissed for lack of evidence, because the allegations would not have changed the election outcome, or because of procedural issues with the challenge.
Of the 107, only three resulted in Congress seating the challenger:
- 20 votes in New Hampshire’s 1st – In November 1936, Republican Arthur Byron Jenks was ahead of Democrat Alphonse Roy by 550 votes. Following a recount, Jenks and Roy were tied. While a state commission decided Roy was the winner, Jenks disclosed over 30 “previously missing ballots” from one precinct. The back-and-forth continued in Congress where the then-Committee on Elections reversed again, concluding Roy was the winner by 20 votes. Roy was seated on June 9, 1938.
- 99 votes in Indiana’s 5th – In 1960, Democrat J. Edward Roush, lost his reelection bid by 12 votes to Republican George O. Chambers. Because Indiana law did not provide for recounts for legislative office, the Committee on House Administration conducted the recount which put Roush ahead by 99 votes. Roush was seated on June 14, 1961.
- 4 votes in Indiana’s 8th – In 1984, Democrat Frank McCloskey was ahead of Republican Richard McIntyre by 72 votes. Following a recount, McIntyre was ahead by 34 votes. After finding Indiana’s election process and recount procedure were unreliable, the Committee on House Administration conducted its own recount which put McCloskey ahead by 4 votes. McCloskey was seated on May 1, 1985.
And what can the House do?
If the committee determines that Hart provides enough evidence, it could call for another election or decide to investigate the original election. This could involve consideration of a segment of ballots or a full hand recount.
At the end of its investigation, Hart’s contest could be dismissed or the committee could draft a resolution entitling her to the seat.
Congress would need to vote a resolution replacing Miller-Meeks with Hart.
However, a growing number of House Democrats have expressed skepticism that they should be involved in overturning a state-certified election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would be unlikely to force a vote on an issue that did not have enough support to pass.
What does Mariannette Miller-Meeks say about this?
Miller-Meeks rejected the notion that legally cast ballots weren’t counted.
“That’s why I will repeat: Every legal ballot was counted, every legal vote was recounted and, at every juncture, I was ahead,” she said.
For Miller-Meeks, the original sin of the Hart campaign was skipping the state court.
“If she is not required to exhaust her state remedies — if the majority of this Committee is going to open the floodgates and start overriding state election law — then the Committee should come right out and say it. Let’s not beat around the bush,” her lawyers wrote in response to questions from the committee.
Had she appealed in Iowa contest court, Iowa Chief Justice Susan Christensen and four appointed district court judges selected by the Iowa Supreme Court would have ruled on Hart’s contest. Miller-Meeks lawyers argued the state option would have kept politics from influencing the outcome as the Committee on House Administration is controlled by Democrats.
For subscribers:An affront to democracy or a call for enfranchisement? Read what lawyers for Miller-Meeks, Hart want the U.S. House to know
Why didn’t Rita Hart go to the state court?
There were fewer than 10 days between the completion of the November 2020 recount of IA-02 and Iowa Code’s deadline for an election contest court to make a ruling on who is entitled to the seat. In December, Hart argued this was not enough time to seek the hand recount they’d asked for. November’s recount took several weeks.
It was for this reason, she said, the state’s option for an appeal wasn’t sufficient. An appeal Federal Contested Elections Act offered an extended timeline, she said.
Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution gives the U.S. House authority to judge elections, returns and qualifications for its own membership. This supersedes even the states these members would represent.
According to a report on contested election cases brought before the House that was prepared by the Congressional Research Service, “a contestant arguably should exhaust state remedies in obtaining a recount under state election laws or through the state courts before requesting the (Committee on House Administration) to conduct such a recount.” But, the report continues, the committee has the legal authority to undertake a recount outside of state recount proceedings when it deems it necessary.
What are the politics of this?
Since Hart announced in December that she was going to appeal to Congress, Republicans have argued that Hart’s decision to appeal the case to the Democratic Congress undermines the integrity of the election process.
Nine U.S. House Republicans who supported the impeachment of former President Donald Trump wrote a letter to Pelosi expressing “extreme dismay” over the situation, the Washington Post reported.
“It is our belief that any attempt to overturn the result of a certified congressional election (in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District) through a partisan process will be rightfully seen as illegitimate and further erode that trust in our election system,” they wrote.
Iowa’s lone Democrat in Congress, U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, said in December that Hart had Constitutional and legal grounds to appeal her six-vote defeat in Congress.
“I support a transparent process that ensures every properly-cast vote in this contest is counted,” she said in a statement. “It is the only way to give Iowa voters full faith and confidence in the outcome of this historically-close election.”
But Republicans have mounted a public pressure campaign. Politico reported that the conservative American Action Network has polled the issue in Axne’s district and intends to make any vote to confirm Miller-Meeks politically perilous. The group is reportedly spending five figures across 19 districts to fund calls to constituents of committee members and other vulnerable Democrats.
More:What’s next in Iowa’s contested 2nd District race? Campaigns must argue their cases in new filings
When will this all be over?
We just don’t know.
The quickest end would be through a dismissal of Hart’s challenge. The Committee could take up the dismissal at any scheduled meeting. That is the most common outcome of these challenges.
But looking at how close the margin was and the amount of attention on this contest, if the committee decides to conduct a recount, the process could take weeks or months to resolve.