OTTUMWA — An attorney for Rita Hart said Monday the campaign is "very confident" its election challenge will prevail and the Clinton County Democrat will ultimately assume Iowa's second congressional seat at the U.S. House.
Currently, Ottumwa Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks has provisionally seated after she was certified as the winner by a bipartisan Iowa elections board.
After a recount put Miller-Meeks as the winner of the U.S. House race in Iowa by a six-vote margin, Hart elected to petition to the U.S. House in an effort to count 22 uncounted votes — 18 of which were cast for Hart.
The Hart campaign contends these votes are legal, and if counted, would put Hart ahead and Miller-Meeks in the results.
The Miller-Meeks campaign filed their response last week, arguing the challenge must be dismissed because Hart did not exhaust challenge opportunities in Iowa law.
An attorney for the Hart campaign said Monday, however, there is no requirement to do that. He said the Hart campaign filed their challenge with the Democrat-controlled U.S. House because they decided it was the best venue to rule on the issues.
"These are just venue decisions that as lawyers you make based on what ... venue is going to give the fairest and most complete hearing," Hart's campaign attorney Marc Elias said. "Here, the state courts because of the time restrictions in state law would simply not have allowed that."
Reading the response by Miller-Meeks' campaign made Elias more confident the Hart team will prevail, he said. He noted that the Miller-Meeks campaign focused on the precedent of whether the U.S. House would be able to rule on the claim. The filing did not address or challenge the 22 uncounted ballots that Hart is seeking to include.
"They do not say that the 22 votes are not legal," Elias said. "They do not say anything other than they were erroneously not counted."
Alan Ostergen, attorney for the Miller-Meeks campaign, likened Elias' comments to partisan spin.
"No amount of partisan spin can change the fact that the precedents of the House of Representatives require a contestant to first present her claims under state law," Ostergen said in a statement Monday. "The Iowans in the Second Congressional District should not be denied their elected representative because Rita Hart cannot accept the fact that she lost."
Elias said the Miller-Meeks campaign is cherry-picking which precedent to pay attention to. He said the Federal Contested Elections Act, which the Hart campaign is using to file the contest, does not require all other remedies to be exhausted first.
Elias pointed out that in 1996, Republican Robert Dornan filed a challenge against Democrat Loretta Sanchez. In that case, Sanchez also argued that Dornan had not exhausted all state claims. That Dornan hadn't exhausted all possible remedies was not a reason for the challenge to be thrown out, Elias said.
There's no timeline for how long the dispute will carry on before it's ruled on by the U.S. House, but it could take several more weeks to resolve. The House Administration Committee will be first to act, and have some latitude in determining how to proceed.
Among the 22 uncounted ballots that Hart is seeking to have counted by the U.S. House are nine absentee ballots from Marion County. The Hart campaign said there were legally cast ballots in a box that were not recounted during the recount, with five of them for the Hart campaign.