ELECTION 2020

Iowa Democrat Rita Hart to challenge 6-vote loss in appeal to U.S. House

Iowa panel has certified Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks as winner

Rita Hart answers a question during a debate with Mariannette Miller-Meeks in October. The state certified this week tha
Rita Hart answers a question during a debate with Mariannette Miller-Meeks in October. The state certified this week that Miller-Meeks won the election by six votes, and Hart’s campaign said Wednesday she will forgo further legal challenges in the state and instead appeal directly to the U.S. House for review. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette file photo)

A dispute in the nation’s closest congressional race in decades may be headed to a decision by the Democratically-controlled U.S. House.

Former state senator and Democrat Rita Hart announced plans Wednesday to file a petition in the coming weeks with the House Committee on Administration under the Federal Contested Elections Act, challenging the outcome in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District — forgoing a legal challenge and review in state court instead.

Iowa’s state canvass board has already certified results for the race, following a recount of all 24 counties in the Southeast Iowa district, and officially declared Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks as the winner — by just six votes.

Miller-Meeks, a state senator and ophthalmologist from Ottumwa, narrowly edged out Hart, of Wheatland, with 196,964 votes to Hart’s 196,958, the state board said.

With over 394,000 votes cast in the race, it was the closest House race in the country and the closest congressional race in Iowa in more than 100 years.

The Associated Press has said it will wait until after legal appeals are exhausted before declaring a winner in the race.

Hart had until Wednesday afternoon to contest the certified results in state court. That would have thrown the race to a five-member judicial tribunal presided over by the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, which would have been required by state law to rule by Dec. 8 on who won the race.

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Hart’s campaign, in a news release, said the tight deadlines in a state challenge would not allow enough time to examine the ballots and evidence needed “to ensure all Iowans’ votes are accurately counted in this historically close election.”

Instead, Hart chose to appeal to the U.S. House. Congress has intervened in tight races before — but rarely, the Associated Press has reported.

“With a margin this small, it is critical that we take this next step to ensure Iowans’ ballots that were legally cast are counted,” Rita Hart for Iowa campaign manager Zach Meunier said in a statement. “In the weeks to come, we will file a petition with the House Committee on Administration requesting that these votes be counted, and we hope that Mariannette Miller-Meeks will join us in working to ensure that every Iowans’ voice is heard.”

Alan Ostergren, attorney for the Miller-Meeks’ campaign, in a statement said that “Rita Hart has chosen to avoid Iowa’s judicial system because she knows that a fair, objective analysis of this election would show what we already know: Miller-Meeks won.”

“Rita Hart has chosen a political process controlled by Nancy Pelosi over a legal process controlled by Iowa judges. All Iowans should be outraged by this decision,” Ostergren said.

Republican Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, in a statement, said Iowans “deserve to have the contest process decided by Iowa judges.”

“The will of Iowa voters should not be overturned by partisan Washington, D.C., politicians,” Pate said.

Hart would need to file a petition within 30 days of Monday’s state certification of the election results. Doing so could trigger a proceeding in front of the House Committee on Administration that would allow the campaign to offer testimony and evidence.

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

The committee would then submit a report of its findings to the full House, with a recommendation on which candidate should fill the seat, which would require a simple majority vote.

The race narrowed considerably since election night, when Miller-Meeks held a 282-vote lead. Before the recount began, Miller-Meeks’ lead had narrowed to 47 votes after late-arriving mail-in absentee and provisional ballots were counted, and precinct reporting errors were corrected in Jasper and Lucas counties.

Later, on Nov. 23, in Jasper County, a ballot tabulating machine broke during the recount and had to be repaired. Miller-Meeks’ campaign alleged that, once repaired, the machine could not reliably read ballots and disputed the count after Hart had gained nine votes.

The recount board brought in a new machine to recount 10,999 absentee ballots that were in question, and the recount resulted in Miller-Meeks losing a vote in the county and Hart’s total staying the same, the AP reported.

Hart’s campaign, too, contends many counties did not fully review ballots to identify valid votes that the machines did not recognize, in part because of the time and burden that would have been required.

In Scott County, the recount board conducted a machine-assisted hand count, using a high-speed scanner, which tabulated votes for Miller-Meeks and Hart and sorted out overvotes, write-ins and unclear ballots. It did not separate out some 3,400 undervotes to check for voter intent.

Iowa law also prohibits ballots that were not counted in the initial canvass from being considered in a recount. As a result, Hart’s campaign alleges there are legal ballots, including ones cast by military members overseas, not counted on election night, along with thousands of unexamined overvotes and undervotes.

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Miller-Meeks’ six-vote lead represents the slimmest margin in any congressional race since 1984, when the Democratically-controlled House voted to seat Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey after its recount determined he had won an Indiana district by four votes.

Miller-Meeks and Hart are vying to replace Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, who is retiring after holding the seat for seven terms.

On Wednesday, Miller-Meeks was in Washington, D.C., attending the second session of orientation for new members of Congress. It was unclear whether the House process would prevent her from being sworn in next month to represent the district, which includes Iowa City, Burlington and Davenport.

The Associated Press contributed.

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