CLINTON — Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks asked the U.S. House on Thursday to dismiss an election contest filed by Democratic challenger Rita Hart that argues the six-vote race was wrongly decided.
Miller-Meeks, who represents Iowa’s Second Congressional District and was provisionally seated Jan. 3, argued in a legal motion that the Democratic-controlled chamber should not consider Hart’s appeal because Hart did not contest the outcome under Iowa law.
The two candidates are battling it out over the seat that had been filled by Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat. The district covers most of the southeastern part of the state and includes 24 counties: Appanoose, Cedar, Clarke, Clinton, Davis, Decatur, Des Moines, Henry, Jasper, Jefferson, Johnson, Keokuk, Lee, Louisa, Lucas, Mahaska, Marion, Monroe, Muscatine, Scott, Van Buren, Wapello, Washington, and Wayne counties. After several recounts, Miller-Meeks was declared the certified winner, by a six-vote margin, on Nov. 30.
The count: Miller-Meeks with 196,964 votes to Hart’s 196,958.
At the root of Hart’s challenge is a claim by Hart’s attorneys that they have identified 22 votes that were wrongly excluded due to errors, including 18 for Hart that would change the outcome if counted. They also want the House to examine thousands of ballots marked by machines as undervotes and overvotes that weren’t visually inspected during the recount.
The 22 ballots that Hart claims were wrongly rejected involve interpretations of state law that should have been decided by Iowa judges, Miller-Meeks’s filing said. Additional votes for Miller-Meeks may also have been rejected “in the ordinary course of election administration,” it said.
After the Nov. 30 declaration of Miller-Meeks’s win, Hart decided not to challenge the result under Iowa law, saying it did not allow enough time to conduct additional recount proceedings. The law would have required a panel of judges to rule on challenges within days.
Hart filed an election contest to the U.S. House on Dec. 22 under a 1969 law that spells out how congressional candidates can challenge elections that they believe were marred by serious irregularities. In her notice of contest, Hart says the 22 ballots were unfairly excluded, some by poll worker errors and others because of unsealed or damaged envelopes, having the voter’s signature in the wrong place, or being left in a drop box outside the county, according to Ballotpedia.
Miller-Meeks’s attorney Alan Ostergren, while on a video call with reporters on Thursday, said Miller-Meeks and her team take issue with Hart’s challenge on two points: the first being that longstanding House precedent calls for contestants to take their challenge to the state first.
“Rita Hart should have raised her claims before a neutral panel of Iowa judges rather than before a political process controlled by her own party,” Ostergren said.
Ostergren said the five-judge panel could have easily considered the 22 votes in dispute and ruled on them in the time period allotted.
The second point of Miller-Meeks’ challenge is that Hart’s election contest lacks substance. He compared the challenge to that of a disgruntled sports fan who blames an official’s call for the loss of a game when there were other bad calls that went against the other team.
Taking the extreme step of overturning a state-certified election would lead to a “parade of contests” in which losing candidates from the House majority’s party will ask for intervention after close races, Ostergren warned.
As to what will happen next, the U.S. House Administration Committee will determine how to proceed, and whether to investigate or dismiss the case. A spokesman said it would closely review the filings from both campaigns, as required by law. There is no timeline as to when a decision would have to be made.
Historically, most contested election cases heard by the committee have been dismissed. Out of 107 contested election cases filed between 1933 and 2009, the candidate who contested the election only won three times, according to Ballotpedia.
In a press release issued Thursday, Hart said she was disappointed by Miller-Meeks’s motion, arguing at least 22 voters would be disenfranchised without additional proceedings.
“It is crucial to me that this bipartisan review by the U.S. House is fair, and I hope our leaders will move swiftly to address this contest and ensure all votes are counted,” she said. “As I have said from the beginning of this entire process, nothing is more important than ensuring every Iowan has their vote counted. But at this moment we know two voters in Iowa’s Second Congressional District still have not had their legally cast votes counted and thousands of other voters have not had their ballots examined, which is why I filed a contest in the House to ensure these voters are not left disenfranchised.”
The Nov. 3 election was the narrowest margin of victory in a U.S. House race since 1984, when Francis McCloskey, a Democrat, defeated Republican Richard McIntyre by four votes in Indiana’s 8th Congressional District.