ELECTION 2020

U.S. House review of contested Iowa race could take months

But first, lawmakers must decide if they'll take up Hart's complaint

Five weeks after the election, the ultimate winner of Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District may be headed to a decision by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House that, if the lawmakers take up the issue, could last for months.

Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa was certified as the winner last week by the state canvassing board.

The board said she edged out Democratic former state senator Rita Hart of Wheatland by just six votes out of more than 400,000 cast following a districtwide recount in all 24 counties requested by Hart.

Hart’s campaign last Wednesday announced plans to file a petition with the U.S. House Committee on Administration challenging the outcome and asking for a full review of all ballots in the race — bypassing Iowa courts in the challenge.

The Hart campaign has defended its decision, arguing Iowa law does not allow for sufficient time to review the number of ballots it believes should be analyzed.

Republicans criticized the Hart campaign for choosing to appeal to out-of-state politicians instead of Iowa judges.

By state law, recount boards may consider only ballots considered on election night, even if the board is made aware of ballots excluded from the initial count.

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The Hart campaign argues thousands of legally cast ballots were not considered for various reasons during the recounts, including — it says — 35 ballots from military members and other Iowans overseas from Scott County, as well as thousands of ballots not examined consistently across all the counties.

Why the U.S. House?

Under the Constitution, Congress has the authority to judge the “elections and returns” of its members. While challenges and recounts are initially conducted by states, Congress is the final arbiter.

Hart’s campaign and Democrats, including retiring seven-term Democratic Iowa 2nd District U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, argued a review in the U.S. House provides more time and flexibility.

How often has this been done? According to the House Committee on Administration, it is not unheard of but is uncommon for Congress to intervene in a House race.

“We get contested elections filed every election cycle, but less common for the committee to take up a petition,” committee Communications Director Peter Whippy said.

There were 107 contested election cases considered in the U.S. House since 1933, according to the Congressional Research Service. The last was in 1985, when the Democratic-controlled House voted to seat Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey after its recount determined he had won Indiana’s 8th Congressional District by four votes. The move nullified the state’s certification of his Republican challenger as the winner.

The vast majority of these cases were resolved in favor of the member-elect whose election was challenged.

But in at least three cases, the House seated the contestant. In at least one case, it refused to seat anyone, declaring a vacancy. However, most contests were dismissed by the House either for lack of evidence; failure to prove voting irregularities, fraud or misconduct sufficient to affect the results; or for procedural failures.

The next steps

Hart had 30 days from the state certification Nov. 30 to file a petition with U.S. House. Doing so would trigger a proceeding before the House Committee on Administration that would allow the campaign to offer testimony and evidence.

Miller-Meeks would then have 30 days to respond, including establishing any defense or filing a motion to dismiss.

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The committee could decide to dismiss the petition; or to conduct a preliminary investigation or a limited recount to determine if there are grounds for a full-scale investigation; or order a full-scale investigation, including a recount.

The House could also direct the committee by resolution to conduct its own investigation, a process that in the past has included reviewing election records and examining disputed ballots.

Hart would have to prove that a recount would “show substantial fraud and irregularity, change the result of the election, and make ... her the winner,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

Should the committee decide to hear a petition, it would appoint a three-member task force to investigate. Parties would have up to 70 days to take depositions.

After completing its investigation, the committee would file a report with the House with a recommendation — subject to simple majority vote — on which candidate should fill the seat, or find that neither are entitled to the seat and declare a vacancy.

Will Miller-Meeks be sworn in Jan. 3 with other members? It’s up to the House.

Of the 107 contested election cases considered by the House since 1933, in at least 15 cases, the member-elect was asked to “step aside” or “remain seated” while the oath of office was administered to the other members-elect, according to the Congressional Research Service.

House Parliamentarians in the past have said, though, the seating of a member-elect does not prejudice a contest pending under the Federal Contested Elections Act, the Congressional Research Service said.

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