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Miller-Meeks Files Motion To Dismiss Hart's Election Challenge Before U.S. House

mariannette miller-meeks
John Pemble
IPR file
Republican Rep. Miller-Meeks has filed a motion to dismiss her competitor's case before the U.S. House challenging her six-vote margin in November's election.

Republican Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks filed a motion Thursday asking the U.S. House to dismiss a challenge brought by her opponent, former Democratic state Sen. Rita Hart, who is disputing her six-vote margin in the November election. Miller-Meeks’ legal team argues the contest should be dismissed because Hart didn’t first make her case in state court.

Miller-Meeks’ filing Thursday marks the next step in an appeals process before the Committee on House Administration, which will determine whether to dismiss the case or allow it to proceed. Ultimately, following a recommendation the committee, the full House could decide by simple majority vote who should have the seat.

Miller-Meeks has labeled Hart’schallenge before the Democratically-controlled chamber as a “political” process, rather than a legal one.

In November, state officials certified Miller-Meeks as the winner, following a districtwide recount requested by Hart. The final official tally of votes was 196,964 to 196,958, making the contest the closest federal race in the country during the 2020 cycle.

Miller-Meeks points to legislative precedent

In the motion filed Thursday, Miller-Meeks’ legal team argues that “more than a century” ofprecedent has established that contestants should exhaust all legal remedies at the state level before appealing to Congress.

“Time and time again they have dismissed election contests where the contestant has failed to take advantage of mechanisms under state law to raise these issues,” said Alan Ostergren, an attorney for Miller-Meeks and a former Muscatine County Attorney. “That is by far the most important point that we raise in our motion, that because Rita Hart did not take advantage of the provisions available to her under Iowa law, that…the contest must be dismissed.”

Guidance issued by congressional staff in 2010 says that the House is empowered to set its own rules for election contests and that while legislative precedent is “extremely important," the chamber isn’t necessarily bound by past precedents “as long as the committee is acting within the scope of its authority."

Even if the past precedents aren’t binding, they’re worth following, Ostergren argues.

“Hopefully the House will realize that if they discard over a century of precedent in order to excuse what Rita Hart did here, which is bypass the Iowa contest court process, then…that is a new precedent that can be used against Democrats in the future,” he said.

Hart defends appeal

Hart’s campaign has argued that Iowa law sets a strict timeline for the state contest court, a timeline that would not allow for a full review of the race. That process would have prompted a panel of five Iowa judges, led by the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, to review the case over a matter of days. Hart says appealing directly to Congress is the only way to ensure that “every Iowan has their vote counted."

In their motion filed with the House, Hart’s legal team identified 22 ballots they say were legally cast but incorrectly left out of the count, apparently due to election worker error and inconsistencies in the application of state law across different counties.

Based on sworn affidavits from those voters, counting those ballots would award Hart 18 additional votes and net Miller-Meeks three. (One voter did not vote for either candidate).

In seeking to have the challenge dismissed, Hart argues that Miller-Meeks is in effect seeking to disenfranchise those voters.

“Mariannette Miller-Meeks herself has acknowledged that there are votes yet to be counted, which makes her attempt to stop votes from being counted even more disappointing,” Hart said in a written statement. “It is crucial to me that this bipartisan review by the U.S. House is fair, and I hope our leaders will move swiftly to address this contest and ensure all votes are counted.”

Another recount is possible

Hart has asked the House to conduct a full recount of all the ballots, including thousands of undervotes and overvotes that were counted by machines but never examined by hand for voter intent, due to variations in how each county recount board handled the process.

Miller-Meeks’ legal team has countered that Hart is crying foul on a process that her campaign had a say in directing, by requesting certain counties conduct a hybrid process of recounting partly by hand and partly by machine. Under state law, the recount boards are made up of one representative picked by each campaign and a third representative that they jointly agree on.

“It is, I think, very inconsistent and even hypocritical of them to then turn around and say, ‘look at this inconsistency, we should get a new recount’, when they are the ones who caused it in the first place,” Ostergren said.

As far as the 22 ballots identified by the Hart campaign, Ostergren dismissed them as “legally insufficient” to prove Hart’s case that in fact she won more votes.

“They have cherry-picked some ballots. And yes, they’ve picked a few that went to Dr. Miller-Meeks,” Ostergren said. “The point is, if they had a legitimate case, they would’ve brought it in front of a panel of Iowa judges. That fact that they didn’t tells you everything you need to know.”

But Hart maintains her goal is a “fair” and thorough review of all the ballots cast, at which point she argues it will be “clear” that she should be seated in Congress.

“[A]t this moment we know twenty-two voters in Iowa’s Second Congressional District still have not had their legally-cast votes counted and thousands of other voters have not had their ballots examined, which is why I filed a contest in the House to ensure these voters are not left disenfranchised,” Hart said. “Iowans deserve to know that the candidate who earned the most votes represents them and after making sure all ballots are counted, it will be clear that I have won this election.”

Earlier this month, Miller-Meeks was provisionally seated as a member of the 117th Congress, pending the resolution of the challenge. It’s now up to the Committee on House Administration to review the filings and determine next steps.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter