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State Certifies Miller-Meeks As Winner In Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, But A Legal Challenge May Follow

mariannette miller-meeks
John Pemble
IPR file
State officials have formally certified Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks as the winner in the race for Iowa's 2nd Congressional District, but her competitor is expected to challenge that outcome.

State officials formally certified Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks as the next representative of Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District on Monday, declaring her the winner in the closest federal race in the country. If the outcome withstands an expected legal challenge, she will have flipped what was long seen as the state’s most reliably Democratic seat in Congress, edging out Democrat Rita Hart by a mere six votes. But the official determination may not stay settled for long, as Hart’s campaign has signaled it may contest the outcome.

The Executive Council of Iowa formally signed off on the results of the districtwide recount in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District Monday, certifying that Miller-Meeks carried the race by a historic six vote margin.

The council, made up of Gov. Kim Reynolds, Secretary of State Paul Pate, Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and Auditor Rob Sand, voted unanimously to certify the results in the closely-watched contest, as well as a slate of results from Iowa’s elections earlier this month.

Pate noted that the race for the 2nd District is the closest in the country this year.

“The final official tally: Mariannette Miller-Meeks defeated Rita Hart by a margin of six votes, 196,964 to 196,958,” Pate said. “I think that race alone reinforces that every vote counts and can make a difference. And I want to thank all those county recount boards for putting in the time to get that done.”

But the certification may soon be contested; the Hart campaign has signaled it may file a legal challenge against the outcome. The Associated Press has said it expects to not declare a winner in the race until after “all legal appeals are exhausted."

Certification follows a districtwide recount

The certification followed an unprecedented recount of the votes cast in all 24 counties in the southeast Iowa district, a process requested by Hart, a former state senator and retired educator who farms with her husband in Wheatland. Recounting the more than 394,000 ballots narrowed Miller-Meeks’ margin from 47 votes to six, not quite enough to edge out the state senator and ophthalmologist who lives in Ottumwa.

The recount was not without complications: Hart significantly narrowed the margin by netting 26 votes following the recount in Scott County. But there is an unexplained 131 vote discrepancy between the recount board’s tally and the results of the county’s initial canvass.

Monday morning, Scott County supervisors noted their concerns about the disparity between the two totals, but unanimously certified the recount results, following guidance from the county attorney and auditor that the task of reconciling the discrepancy would be up to the courts.

“I think we’re all troubled by why we are where we are. But we don’t get to another place until such time as a contest is requested,” Supervisor Ken Croken said. “Certifying doesn’t mean we’re good with this outcome. It means we would like the process to move forward.”

A key victory for Republicans, if the outcome holds

Should the outcome hold, it would be a victory for Iowa Republicans, who rode a wave of support for President Donald Trump, holding ground that he gained in 2016 in so-called “pivot counties” that just four years prior had voted for President Barack Obama.

In a statement issued Saturday after the last county finished its recount, Miller-Meeks said she was proud to have won the “extraordinarily close” race.

“It is the honor of a lifetime to be elected to serve the people of eastern and southern Iowa. Iowans are tenacious, optimistic and hard working, and I will take those same attributes to Washington, D.C., on their behalf,” her statement reads in part.

The loss of the 2nd Congressional District would be the latest blow for Democrats during a cycle in which they underperformed expectations across the country, holding on to a slim majority in the U.S. House, but ceding ground in closely-contested districts they had flipped two years prior.

If Miller-Meeks is seated, Iowa’s House delegation would again become majority Republican, with Republican Representatives-elect Ashley Hinson and Randy Feenstra serving alongside Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne. That’s a mirror image of just two years ago, when Democrats flipped the delegation from three Republicans and one Democrat, to three Democrats and one Republican.

A legal challenge is expected

Hart did not say Monday if she would contest the outcome. But her campaign has said it is reviewing its options. Following the certification, campaign manager Zach Meunier issued a statement saying that the recount was limited those ballots that were already tallied and may not have included other ballots that weren’t counted.

“Under Iowa law, this recount process was designed to count ballots that had already been tallied, meaning that additional legal ballots may have yet to be counted,” Meunier’s statement reads in part. “Over the next few days, we will outline our next steps in this process to ensure that all Iowans’ voices are heard.”

Under Iowa Code, candidates may contest the election results under a number of circumstances, including if there was “[a]ny error in any board of canvassers in counting the votes, or in declaring the result of the election, if the error would affect the result”.

Candidates have two days after the state canvass to file for an election contest. At that point, the clock starts ticking on what is a very brief timeline for a tribunal of judges to oversee the process, which is expected be resolved by Dec. 8.

Under a process outlined in state law, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen would chair the “contest court," made up of four judges chosen by Christensen from the judicial district. The court is given considerable flexibility in the process, to “make and announce such rules for the trial of the case as they shall think necessary for the protection of the rights of each party and a just and speedy trial of the case."

If that process confirmed Miller-Meeks’ lead, Hart’s final remedy would be to appeal to the Democratic-controlled U.S. House, which has the power to “judge” the elections of its members.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter