ELECTION 2020

Rita Hart cites excluded ballots in petition asking US House to review 2nd District results

Rita Hart answers a question during an Oct. 8 debate with Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Cedar Rapids. (Rebecca F. Miller/T
Rita Hart answers a question during an Oct. 8 debate with Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Cedar Rapids. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Democrat Rita Hart asked the U.S. House on Tuesday to investigate and overturn the results to make her the winner of Iowa’s incredibly close 2nd Congressional District election, arguing 22 ballots were wrongly excluded and others not examined in a recount.

Hart, a former state senator from Wheatland, argues she would have netted 15 more votes and defeated Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa had the 22 ballots been tallied during an initial canvass of votes and a subsequent recount in the Southeast Iowa district.

Hart filed a petition Tuesday asking the Democratic-controlled House to count those votes and conduct a uniform hand recount of all ballots, saying she is confident she will be declared the winner after the process.

“As I have said from the beginning of this entire process, nothing is more important than ensuring every Iowan has their vote counted,” Hart said in a statement. “Everyone has acknowledged that there are uncounted votes left and after reviewing those ballots and making sure they are counted, it will be clear that I have won this election. It is crucial to me to make sure that this bipartisan review by the U.S. House is fair. Iowans deserve to know that the candidate who earned the most votes is seated.”

Miller-Meeks was officially anointed the winner after a bipartisan canvassing board of top state officials voted unanimously Nov. 30 to certify results of the Nov. 3 election. Miller-Meeks edged Hart by just six votes out of about 400,000 cast following a recount in all 24 counties of the congressional district.

In a video posted to social media, Miller-Meeks called Hart’s claims “baseless” and reiterated that “that every vote has been counted.”

“Rita Hart is seeking partisan power play ... and Sen. Hart now wants a process run by one Californian, Nancy Pelosi, and decided in Washington’s hyperpartisan, dysfunctional atmosphere and not according to Iowa law,” said Miller-Meeks, who has 30 days to respond to Hart’s filing. “Iowans have spoken. Rita Hart should listen, and she should trust and respect the decisions of Iowans.”

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In the petition, Hart detailed what she described as 22 legally cast ballots that were wrongly excluded from the state-certified results.

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

In her filing, Hart argues that 11 ballots weren’t counted because of mistakes by poll workers, including nine ballots discovered during the recount in Marion County and two curbside votes that weren’t put into a tabulation machine in Scott County.

The petition, too, outlines 11 other ballots Hart’s attorneys say were wrongly excluded for a variety of reasons. Those included absentee ballots rejected because secrecy envelopes were not sealed properly. One envelope was ripped; another was signed but not in the right spot. Two voters in Des Moines and Wapello counties say their absentee ballots were rejected despite being delivered by a state deadline because they were placed in drop boxes in Linn County, according to the petition.

“These are voters who did everything right. They played by the rules,” Hart campaign attorney Marc Elias told reporters. “And yet, they found themselves disenfranchised.”

The petition also said 35 overseas and military ballots were not counted in Scott County due to a scanning error.

Additionally, Hart has argued the “haphazard” 24-county recount was marred by inconsistencies in how ballots were reviewed from county to county, resulting in thousands of ballots with recorded under votes and over votes not being examined for voter intent.

Iowa law provides broad discretion of the process to recount boards, consisting of two members appointed by each campaign and a third member mutually chosen, to decide the mechanics of a recount.

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Rather than challenge the outcome in Iowa’s courts, Hart instead filed her challenge under a 1969 law, the Federal Contested Elections Act, which will trigger an investigation by the Committee on House Administration that could last months. To prevail, Hart must show by a preponderance of evidence she received the most votes.

Republicans have blasted Hart’s decision to bypass Iowa courts.

“If Democrats are serious about ensuring the integrity of elections, they must reject this blatant attempt to subvert the will of Iowa voters just to pick up a seat in Congress,” Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement calling on Hart to concede.

Hart contends state law does not provide sufficient time to challenge the results in Iowa court, asking a five-judge panel to review thousands of ballots and rule in days.

The U.S. Constitution grants the House and Senate power to determine the election and qualifications of its members. The last time Congress did so was in 1985, when the Democratic-controlled House voted to seat Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey after it determined he had won Indiana’s 8th Congressional District by four votes. The move nullified the state’s certification of his Republican challenger, with Republicans walking out of the chamber in protest.

There were 107 contested election cases considered in the U.S. House since 1933, according to the Congressional Research Service. The vast majority of cases were resolved in favor of the member-elect whose election was challenged.

It was not clear whether the House will allow Miller-Meeks to take office Jan. 3 to replace retiring Democrat Dave Loebsack of Iowa City.

Pelosi, the House speaker, earlier this month called Hart “an excellent candidate” and said the chamber would decide who it will seat after the contest process.

Committee on House Administration Chairwoman U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., in a statement, said the committee was in the early stages of reviewing Hart’s petition. Once Miller-Meeks files her response or a motion to dismiss, committee members will consider investigating or dismissing the claim.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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