Staff Columnist

Iowa election challenge is about to make U.S. politics a whole lot stupider

With a party-line vote, U.S. House Democrats could nullify certified election results. They've done it before.

Johnson County election workers and observers at the Johnson County Administration building in Iowa City on Wednesday, N
Johnson County election workers and observers at the Johnson County Administration building in Iowa City on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

If you thought Congress couldn’t get more partisan, or that trust in the election process couldn’t be lower, stay tuned.

Iowa Democrat Rita Hart lost the 2nd Congressional District race by just six votes to Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks, according to official results certified by state officials this week. Hart plans to appeal directly to the U.S. House, foregoing the established legal process of appealing to a panel of Iowa judges.

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Hart’s maneuver sets up a situation where House Democrats — who already are anxious over their razor-thin majority in the chamber — could nullify Iowa’s certified election results by a simple majority vote along party lines. They’ve done it before.

The six-vote margin in the southeast Iowa race marks the closest contest since 1984, when an Indiana Democrat won by four votes. It was the product of a recount carried out by House Democrats, overturning the official results reported by the state, which had the Republican challenger winning.

The facts in Indiana 1984 were strikingly similar to Iowa 2020.

As then-U.S. Rep. William Alexander, Democrat of Arkansas, said at the time: “The problem was that separate recount boards in the 15 counties of the Eighth District used their own individual standards to judge the validity of the ballots.”

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Strike “15” for “24” and “eighth” for “second” and it’s an apt reading of the situation in Iowa.

At issue in Indiana were some 5,000 ballots deemed ineligible by state and local officials, thrown out for what documents from the time call “technical” and “clerical” errors. A panel of two Democrats and one Republican called for counting all the disputed ballots, regardless of whether they were legally cast under Indiana law.

The House didn’t settle the matter until May, nearly four months after new members were seated. Indiana’s 8th District was left without representation for the duration.

The vote to seat the incumbent Democrat was mostly along party lines — every Republican voted against it, and 10 Democrats joined them. The drama was attributed with deepening partisan divides in Congress, helping establish the kind of scorched-earth politics that are so pervasive more than three decades later.

Fast forward to today. Following a 47-vote gap in preliminary results, the recount process in Iowa’s 2nd District has been fraught. Each campaign has taken issue with actions taken by county auditors and recount boards, which are composed of a representative appointed by each campaign and one mutual member.

The Hart campaign has focused on overvotes and undervotes, which are ballots not tallied for either candidate by counting machines because either zero or two candidates were marked. But under Iowa law, votes not counted in the initial canvass can’t be included in a recount.

The 24-county recount exposed shortfalls in the process prescribed by Iowa Code. State lawmakers and the secretary of state, elected by Iowans, should look for ways to tighten up the law and make the recount proceedings more clear.

But the U.S. House, soon potentially operating with only three members from Iowa, ought to be mighty cautious about sticking its fingers into election results duly certified by the state.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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