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Hart Attorney Remains 'Confident' In Election Contest Before The U.S. 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
An attorney for former state Sen. Rita Hart is expressing confidence in the campaign's case before the U.S. House challenging the election results in Iowa's 2nd Congressional District.

A lawyer for former Democratic state Sen. Rita Hart is expressing confidence in the campaign’s case before the U.S. House challenging the election results in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who was provisionally seated in the chamber after state officials certified the results, is defending her six vote margin in the historically close race and arguing the case should be dismissed.

Both parties have now filed petitions with the Committee on House Administration, which is charged with overseeing the challenge.

Last week Miller-Meeks’ legal team filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that “more than a century of precedent” required that Hart exhaust all legal remedies at the state level before taking her case to Congress.

Hart’s legal team, meanwhile, is asking the chamber to count 22 ballots it has identified which voters testified were legally cast but erroneously left out of the tally, apparently due to election worker error and inconsistencies in the application of state law across the district’s 24 counties. Additionally, Hart is asking for a full hand recount.

Speaking to reporters Monday, attorney Marc Elias says he’s even more confident in his client’s case after reading Miller-Meeks’ motion, saying the filing largely focuses on procedural issues rather than the facts of the case.

“I am more confident now than I was when I last talked to you that Rita Hart is going to be sworn in as the next congresswoman from IA-02, that she obtained more lawful votes,” Elias said. “We filed a petition that made a claim to the seat based on specific evidence, specific voters.”

As far as the question of precedent, Elias countered that Miller-Meeks’ team is “cherry-picking” past election contests that will suit their arguments, primarily focusing on cases that predated the Federal Contested Elections Act, the law pursuant to which Hart filed her appeal.

Miller-Meeks’ attorney Alan Ostergren previously said the legal team would more fully address the merits of the case after procedural questions were settled.

“Nothing could undermine the duty placed on a contestant more than permitting her to bypass available state procedures to raise and resolve factual and legal complaints about the conduct of the election," reads Miller-Meeks’ motion in part. “This House has wisely, both before and after the adoption of the FCEA, dismissed election contests where the contestant failed to pursue available state remedies first.”

Elias instead pointed to one of the most recent election contests in the House, a challenge between Rep. Robert Dornan and Rep.-elect Loretta Sanchez of California, which was allowed to move forward even though the contestant did not first exhaust all state remedies.

“There is no requirement of exhaustion under the federal statute that we are proceeding under. And that, I think, is undisputed as a matter of law,” Elias said. “The Federal Contested Elections Act itself, which is a federal law, does not require exhaustion.”

Miller-Meeks’ campaign continued to dispute this, releasing a written statement from Ostergren on Monday.

“No amount of partisan spin can change the fact that the precedents of the House of Representatives require a contestant to first present her claims under state law,” Ostergren’s statement reads. “The Iowans in the Second Congressional District should not be denied their elected representative because Rita Hart cannot accept the fact that she lost.”

If the Committee on House Administration rejects Miller-Meeks’ exhaustion argument and allows the contest to go forward, Elias says he’s confident that the 22 ballots will be counted, netting 18 votes for Hart and 3 for Miller-Meeks, enough to put Hart in the lead. (One of the voters did not vote for either candidate).

If the exhaustion claim fails, “those 22 votes are going to count. As sure as I sit here, those 22 votes are going to count,” Elias said. “And that is going to, I believe, when that happens, that is going to change the outcome of the election.”

Miller-Meeks’ team has characterized Hart’s evidence as insufficient to prove her case. But after identifying and taking testimony from 22 voters who wish to see their legal votes tallied, Elias counters that seeking to dismiss the case effectively disenfranchises those voters.

“Isn’t the process to make sure that voters’ voices are heard? I mean shouldn’t Miller-Meeks’ top priority be to make sure that those 22 voters have their votes counted?” Elias said. “Whoever looks at this, if you take a step back, like there are 22 voters who haven’t had their votes counted. And there doesn’t seem to be – at the end of this – at the end of the [Miller-Meeks’] briefing here – there doesn’t seem to be any dispute about that.”

It’s now up to the Committee on House Administration to review the filings and determine the next steps, which could include taking testimony and examining ballots. According to the CHA website, the committee has not yet formally organized or scheduled any meetings. Ultimately, the CHA will issue a recommendation on who should have the seat, which the House can act on by a simple majority vote.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter