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House Committee to Consider Merits Of Hart's Challenge Against 2nd District Outcome

Emily Blobaum/Iowa PBS
Democrat Rita Hart and Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks answered questions from reporters and discussed their platforms, concerns, and future plans during last year's campaign.

The U.S. Committee on House Administration voted Wednesday to review the merits of Democrat Rita Hart’s challenge of the outcome in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District before deciding whether to dismiss it. Republican Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who was provisionally seated to represent the southeast Iowa district in January, has asked the House to toss out Hart’s case challenging her six-vote margin in the race.

It was the closest federal race in the country during the 2020 cycle and among the closest congressional races in American history, separated by a mere six votes. Now the House Committee on Administration appears on track to give Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District race a fuller airing.

A ‘constitutional duty’ to review Hart’s case

“The American people deserve to know who actually won this election and the people of Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District deserve to be represented by that person,” Chair Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., told the committee Wednesday.

Lofgren noted that under the U.S. Constitution, “each house of Congress shall be the judge of its own elections, returns and qualifications of its members." She argued that dismissing Hart’s challenge outright before giving it a thorough review would be a “dereliction of our duty under the Constitution and under federal law."

“Today, none of us can state with confidence who actually won this election,” Lofgren said. “Answering that question is a solemn responsibility of this committee and it is our obligation under federal law and under the Constitution.”

Members of the House Committee on Administration approved a resolution on a party-line vote to consider the merits of Hart’s case. An amendment filed to dismiss Hart’s contest, brought by the Ranking Member, Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., was rejected on a party-line vote.

Davis claimed it would be “one of the greatest mistakes this House makes” for the committee to take up Hart’s challenge, which Davis argued should’ve been resolved at the state level, where a bipartisan canvassing board unanimously certified Miller-Meek’s victory.

“Hart had an opportunity to challenge the claim she's making before the committee in Iowa's impartial court process. She chose not to. That leads me to believe her lawyers knew she could not win under Iowa law,” Davis said. “Instead, she's choosing to pursue a partisan process in the House, where Democrat members of Congress, not Iowa voters, will determine their representation in Congress.”

He further criticized the committee for addressing the election contest before holding a meeting to review Capitol security in the wake of Jan. 6.

“Instead of having a hearing on [retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré’s] report, we're having a meeting to move forward with overturning an election of one of our colleagues that was certified using a bipartisan and transparent process,” Davis said. “The priorities of this committee are backwards.”

Hart urges counting of 22 votes that were ‘wrongfully excluded’

Hart filed a notice of contest with the committee in December, arguing that her legal team had identified 22 ballots that were legally cast but incorrectly left out of the count, enough to change the outcome in the race. Hart has requested the committee conduct a full hand recount of the more than 400,000 ballots cast.

Miller-Meeks has filed a motion to dismiss the contest, arguing that Hart didn’t follow precedent in first taking her case to a state court. Hart’s campaign has countered that the timeline for a review under state law would be insufficient to conduct a full recount and address the complaint.

memo released by the Congressional Research Service in 2010 outlining the procedures for contested election cases like this one instructs that “a contestant arguably should exhaust legal remedies” at the state level “before requesting the committee to conduct such a recount”, a key argument made by Miller-Meeks’ team. But the memo also notes that while past legislative precedents are “extremely important” they are “not necessarily binding” on the committee.

Lofgren seemed to dismiss this argument made by Miller-Meeks, reiterating that the House is the final arbiter of the elections of its members and would not have been bound by any state court rulings even if Hart had pursued a case there.

“As the Supreme Court has explained, the House and the House alone must ‘independently evaluate’ the election and reach an independent final judgment about its results,” Lofgren said.

Reaction from campaigns

Hart’s campaign applauded the decision Wednesday, again calling for a review of the 22 ballots that voters testified were legally cast but left out of the tally, as well as the “thousands of potential under- and overvotes” that have not been examined by hand for voter intent, and may have been misread by voting machines.

“We are glad to see the House Committee on Administration taking the next step towards ensuring that every legally-cast vote is counted in this race and that all Iowans’ voices are heard,” reads a statement from Hart Campaign Manager Zach Meunier. “Every legal voter in this country has a right to have their ballot counted and the remedy here is clear -- count the ballots.”

Miller-Meeks’ campaign meanwhile noted that her motion to dismiss “is still pending”. Alan Ostergren, an attorney for Miller-Meeks, continued to criticize Hart for not first appealing to a state court, despite Lofgren’s apparent dismissal of the argument during the meeting.

"Rita Hart's contest has no more merit today than it did when it was filed. Her refusal to put her claims before neutral judges in Iowa tells us everything we need to know about the weakness of her case,” reads a written statement from Ostergren. “She hopes that her fellow Democrats in Washington D.C. will ignore Iowa law and the precedents of the House to grant her the seat in Congress that the voters denied her. Hart's power quest is wrong and damages our electoral system."

Miller-Meeks’ legal team plans to prepare and draft an answer to Hart’s notice of contest, which must be filed by March 22, according to the resolution passed by the CHA.