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Hart To Take Appeal Over 2nd Congressional District Outcome Directly To The US House

Former State Senator Rita Hart is hoping to hold on to Iowa's 2nd Congressional District, long considered safe for Democrats, but now rated a toss-up.
Courtesy of Rita Hart campaign
Former Democratic state Sen. Rita Hart says she's appeal directly to the U.S. House to review the outcome of Iowa's 2nd Congressional District, which state results show she lost by a mere six votes.

Democrat Rita Hart plans to appeal to the Democratically-controlled U.S. House to challenge the outcome of Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District race, the closest federal contest in the country. Hart announced Wednesday she won’t be challenging the results at the state level, due to a fast-approaching deadline that she says would forestall a full examination of the ballots. Earlier this week, state officials certified her competitor Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks as the winner in the race, by a margin of just six votes.

Hart, a former state senator, farmer and retired educator, announced Wednesday she’ll be filing a petition with the U.S. House Committee on Administration, and is declining to request a state election contest.

She faced a Wednesday deadline to file the state appeal, which would have triggered a panel of judges to review the outcome and reach a resolution in a matter of days, by Dec 8.

Hart’s campaign argues the timeline established in state lawisn’t sufficient to examine votes that it says weren’t counted, including military and overseas ballots, and thousands of ballots that machines read as undervotes or overvotes, and were not examined by hand for voter intent. The campaign claims outstanding ballots that were not considered during a districtwide recount “far outnumber” the margin of victory.

Hart has 30 days following the state’s certification to file the petition, which the campaign says it will do in the coming weeks.

The appeal to the U.S. House comes after local election officialsrecounted the more than 394,000 ballots cast across the district’s 24 counties, at Hart’s request. That process narrowed Miller-Meeks’ lead from 47 votes to six.

“While that recount considered more votes, limitations in Iowa law mean there are more legally cast votes left to be counted. With a margin this small, it is critical that we take this next step to ensure Iowans’ ballots that were legally cast are counted,” campaign manager Zach Meunier said in a written statement.

Candidates bring election contests before the U.S. House with some regularity, according to University of Iowa election law professor Derek Muller. But he says many of those appeals “usually don’t go anywhere."

“I think because it’s so close and because the Hart campaign, I think, is anticipating that a Democratically-controlled House, even if it’s a narrow Democratic majority, is going to be more sympathetic to their claims, it is pretty unusual to see the House digging into a recount like this,” Muller said.

Miller-Meeks, a sitting state senator, veteran and ophthalmologist, and a slate of Iowa Republicans were quick to criticize Hart’s decision to not appeal to the state first.

“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,” Miller-Meeks’ campaign attorney Alan Ostergren said in a written statement.

Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate also criticized Hart for pursuing this legal remedy, though Congress has “always regarded itself as the final judge of elections” of its own members. Iowa's process for congressional candidates to appeal election outcomes was first established in 1970.

“Iowans made their voices heard in record numbers, and in the event of a contested election they 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 in a written statement.

Muller told IPR that Congress is not bound by previous precedent that candidates exhaust all legal remedies at the state level before appealing to the House, but speculated this could be an argument used by Republicans during the process.

Committee members will have considerable flexibility in deciding how to move forward, Muller added, and could decide to conduct their own recount, even reexamining ballots. Ultimately, the committee will issue a report on its findings and make a recommendation on which candidate should fill the seat, which House members can decide by a simple majority vote, according to the Associated Press.

The AP has said it does not expect to declare a winner in the race until all legal appeals are finished.

In the meantime, it’s not clear whether the process will prevent Miller-Meeks from being sworn in and seated with the rest of the new Congress in January. Muller said this decision will also be up to the Democratically-controlled House, though he said it’s “unusual” that the apparent winner in a contested race like this would not be seated while the process proceeds.

“It’s unusual. I think it’s disfavored. I think if you’ve got the certificate of election, you should be seated. And if the House determines otherwise then they can seat the proper winner,” Muller said. “But otherwise I would expect Miller-Meeks is going to proceed ‘business as normal’, unless someone tells her otherwise January 3rd.”

Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District is the closest House race since 1984, when a fierce contest in Indiana was decided by Congress. Known as Indiana’s Bloody Eighth, ultimately the Democratically-controlled House overturned the state’s certification of the Republican candidate after conducting its own recount, finding the Democrat had won by a mere four votes.

“This is certainly the closest election since 1984,” Muller said. “We’re living through a historic moment.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter