It may fall on Congress to determine who has won the closest House race in 36 years.
The race in Iowa’s 2nd District was decided by just six votes after a recount, with Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks appearing to defeat former Democratic state Sen. Rita Hart in the open-seat race. State election officials certified the results Monday, and on Wednesday, Hart announced she plans to appeal to the House to consider ballots not included in the recount.
The overturning of state-certified results by the House is rare and last happened after the 1984 elections.
Hart could have challenged the results in court. But election challenges in Iowa must be completed by Dec. 8, and Hart’s campaign did not believe that left enough time to resolve the issue.
Miller-Meeks’ campaign lawyer, Alan Ostergren, said in a statement that 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 [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi over a legal process controlled by Iowa judges,” Ostergren said. “All Iowans should be outraged by this decision.”
Hart is filing a petition with the House Administration Committee under a 1969 law that lays out procedures for contesting state election results. She plans to ask that ballots that were legally cast but not included in the initial canvass be considered in the recount, which is prohibited under Iowa law.
“With a margin this small, it is critical that we take this next step to ensure Iowans’ ballots that were legally cast are counted,” Hart campaign manager Zach Meunier said in a statement. Meunier said Hart would file the petition “in the weeks to come.”
The Constitution makes the House the ultimate judge of the “elections, returns and qualifications” of its own members.
Under the 1969 law, a certified election is presumed valid, and Hart has the burden of proof of showing it was not, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
Hart must state “with particularity” her grounds for contesting the election and Miller-Meeks will be able to respond. Both sides can take sworn depositions and subpoena witnesses and documents. The House Administration Committee, which would still have a majority of Democrats in the next Congress, considers the objection and makes a report to the full House, which has to approve any recommendation to seat Hart or Miller-Meeks — or neither.
Most contested elections that have come before the House in the last century have been dismissed, according to CRS. From 1933 to 2009, the House considered 107 contested election cases. In one instance, it declared a vacancy, and in three cases, it seated the candidate who contested the results.
The most recent instance of the House reversing the initial outcome of an election was more than three decades ago in 1985 in a contest for what was known as Indiana’s “Bloody 8th.” After the 1984 elections, Hoosier State officials certified the 8th District results showing Republican Rick McIntyre had defeated Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey by just 34 votes.
McCloskey contested the election, and the House, which was controlled by Democrats at the time, initially decided not to seat either candidate. The House Administration Committee assembled a task force to investigate, and conducted its own recount which resulted in a four-vote lead for McCloskey, who was then sworn into office.
As in 1985, the House in 2021 will be controlled by Democrats, who face potentially problematic optics of reversing a certified election while simultaneously railing against Republicans for not accepting Donald Trump’s loss, though the president is challenging much bigger margins in states won by Joe Biden.
“That just opens up a huge can of worms,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT who has studied congressional politics and election administration.
Stewart said considering the challenge “puts Congress in a position … of essentially changing the rules after the election.”
Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the Administration Committee, said Hart was making a play for the House to act because “it was clear she could not win in state court.”
“Now, national Democrats are trying to sidestep Iowans by filing a federal objection to maximize Speaker Pelosi’s currently razor-thin majority,” Davis said. “I remain confident that Dr. Miller-Meeks and the people of Iowa’s 2nd District will prevail.”
Miller-Meeks’ victory would further shrink the majority Democrats captured in 2018. The GOP targeted the 2nd District after seven-term Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack, who prevailed in tough election cycles including 2010 and 2014, opted to retire. Trump carried the seat by 4 points in 2016.
Democrats quickly coalesced around Hart, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2018. Miller-Meeks, who challenged and lost to Loebsack three times before running for the open seat this cycle, had to fend off former Illinois Rep. Bobby Schilling in a GOP primary. An ophthalmologist, she is also the former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health and a retired Army reservist.