The U.S. House committee charged with evaluating election challenges decided on Wednesday to consider Rita Hart’s challenge to Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks’ victory in the November 2020 election in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District.
That race was the closest in the country last year. Miller-Meeks, a Republican, won the open seat that had been held by Democrat Dave Loebsack for 14 years, beating Hart by six votes, according to the vote totals certified by Secretary of State Paul Pate.
Between the initial report of vote totals on Election Day and the final certification of the vote on Nov. 30, the lead in the race changed twice, as two counties, Jasper and Lucas, corrected reporting errors in their vote total and a districtwide recount was conducted.
In December, Hart filed a notice of contest with the clerk of the House of Representatives under the Federal Contested Elections Act.
In her filing, Hart cited 22 votes she said were legally cast in the 2nd District, but were not counted in the election total due to various errors by election officials. Hart asked the House Committee on Administration, which handles election challenges, to conduct its own investigation into the election result in her race.
Miller-Meeks was provisionally seated as the representative from the 2nd District when members of the 117th Congress were sworn-in on Jan. 3. Later that month, she filed her response to Hart’s notice of contest.
In her response, Miller-Meeks asked the committee to dismiss Hart’s challenge. Miller-Meeks did not challenge the validity of the 22 uncounted ballots Hart cited, but criticized Hart for not finishing the entire election appeals process in Iowa before taking her challenge to the House.
According to Hart’s campaign, their candidate chose not to appeal the election results because there would not have been enough time for the appeals committee to act before the deadline for states to certify their election results. Also, the committee would have only been able to review the ballots that were included in the districtwide recount, and therefore would have omitted the 22 previously uncounted votes.
According to Miller-Meeks’ attorney, none of that matters.
“The precedents of the House, going back a century or more, require contestants to avail themselves of every single remedy they have under state law before they go to Congress,” Alan Ostergren told the Des Moines Register in January.
The Federal Contested Elections Act, passed in 1969 to give a regular structure to election challenges, does not require candidates to exhaust all state-level appeals before filing a challenge in the House.
On Wednesday, the House Committee on Administration voted to table Miller-Meeks’ request to dismiss, while it reviews Hart’s challenge. The vote fell along party lines, with Democrats supporting the measure and Republicans opposing it.
“Today none of us can say with confidence who won this election,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California and the committee’s chair, said during the committee’s meeting on Wednesday. “Our answer must be grounded in hard evidence, not bald assumptions.”
In his remarks, the ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, echoed Ostergren’s complaint that Hart had not taken the final step in appealing the election results under Iowa law.
“By moving forward with Rita Hart’s complaint, this committee is calling into question every member of Congress elected under Iowa law and, frankly, each of us, too,” he said. “Rita Hart had an opportunity to challenge the claims she is making before the committee in Iowa’s impartial court process. She chose not to. That leads me to believe her lawyers knew that she could not win under Iowa law.”
After the vote, Lofgren said she would work with Davis to develop the procedures the committee will use for the case, as well as a timeline for resolving it.
After completing its work, the committee will deliver a report on the case to the House. If it finds Hart’s case has merit, it can recommend the House unseat Miller-Meeks and replace her with Hart. The House could do that by a simple majority vote, because the Constitution gives the House the authority to be “the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.”
The last time the House replaced a member in response to an election challenge was in 1985. The process took six months, from the filing of the Notice of Contest to the final resolution of the case.
“We are glad to see the House Committee on Administration taking the next step towards ensuring that every legally-cast vote is counted in this race and that all Iowans’ voices are heard. Every legal voter in this country has a right to have their ballot counted and the remedy here is clear — count the ballots,” Zach Meunier said in a written statement after the committee’s decision.
Miller-Meeks responded to the decision on Twitter.
“In Iowa, the votes were counted, recounted, and in some cases – recounted again,” she tweeted. “Now, Rita Hart is asking democrat [sic] politicians in DC to elect her because the voters of Iowa did not.”
The tweet included a link to a site soliciting campaign donations for Miller-Meeks.