Democrat In Iowa Race Picks Apart GOP’s Claim That She’s Just Like Trump

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 13: Rita Hart (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
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March 23, 2021 1:08 p.m.

National Republicans have seized on a contested congressional election in Iowa’s second district to accuse Democrats of doing exactly what they railed against former President Donald Trump and his GOP allies for doing after the 2020 race: trying to steal an election.

The Iowa election, which was decided by just six votes, is now before the House Administration Committee after Democrat Rita Hart filed a claim under the Federal Contested Elections Act.

The House is playing a role it has often played before: It has reviewed more than 100 elections since 1933. And, so far, things are proceeding normally, experts told TPM

That hasn’t stopped Republicans — led last week by Karl Rove in the pages of the Wall Street Journal — from trying to cast Democrats as hell-bent on stealing a seat they didn’t win. Republican congressional leaders have opined that Democrats are guilty of hypocrisy after they opposed Trump’s months-long gambit to toss out millions of votes in key swing states and overturn a presidential election he decisively lost. 

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The Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, who is representing Hart, engaged with that argument directly, making the case in a new brief that Hart’s claim against the certified election in Iowa’s second district is wholly different from Trump’s attempts to overthrow the 2020 election.

Trump “sought to throw out lawful ballots based on unfounded accusations of massive conspiracies and widespread fraud,” Elias wrote. Hart, he contrasted, is trying to “count all lawful ballots” by including 22 rejected ballots in the vote totals. 

Hart and Elias contend that including those ballots, which they say were wrongfully rejected due to election worker error, would make Hart the winner of the November election Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks won by just six votes.

Hart is requesting a hand recount that includes the 22 ballots. The recount already conducted in the district, she contends, did not suffice because it only included ballots that were counted originally, and was not carried out uniformly by the different country boards.

Lawyers for Miller-Meeks filed their brief Monday too, as requested by committee chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). Pelosi provisionally sat Miller-Meeks at the beginning of the term.

Miller-Meeks’ lawyers echo one of the primary Republican talking points on the case, that it shouldn’t be before the committee at all because Hart didn’t contest the election in state court first.

“If she is not required to exhaust her state remedies—if the majority of this Committee is going to open the flood gates and start overriding state election law—then the Committee should come right out and say it,” Miller-Meeks’ lawyers wrote. “Let’s not beat around the bush.”

Contrary to the Republican position, there isn’t any requirement that Hart go through the court system before filing her claim under the FCEA, experts told TPM. Hart maintains that there wasn’t time to do so, since the contest court would have had to be filled out with appointed judges and conduct an investigation and possible recount all in the space of just over a week to meet state deadlines.

Miller-Meeks’ lawyers largely declined to address the merits of Hart’s ballot claims, taking umbrage at Lofgren’s asking them to do so before the discovery period of the process.

“The Congresswoman objects to any attempt to leapfrog the discovery procedures in the FCEA, require her to produce evidence at this stage of the contest, and to ultimately put the burden on her to defend a state-certified election,” they wrote. 

While the procedure Hart is using is not particularly rare — there is actually another, much lower-profile FCEA challenge from the 2020 election cycle, filed by the Republican challenger to Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) — Republicans have seized on the Iowa case to make Democrats uncomfortable. 

By using the false Trump equivalence, Republicans are trying to both-sides the unprecedented election fraud fear mongering and legal onslaught from Trump and his GOP allies that ultimately triggered the January 6 Capitol attack. 

This case, as Elias argues, is completely different. Hart is not claiming election fraud or any malfeasance at all — rather, is pointing to 22 alleged election worker mistakes out of a pool of around 400,000 ballots cast. If she’s right that the ballots were wrongfully rejected, it would amount to nothing more than routine human error that bleeds into every election. Most elections just don’t come down to so few votes.

“This case is unlike the Trump case in that there are actual, disputed ballots to consider,” Jeff Jenkins, provost professor of public policy, political science and law at the University of Southern California, told TPM. “It’s just a matter of whether they should have been counted or not.”

Republican spin seems to be working on at least some House Democrats though. If the case ultimately goes forward and the committee recommends that Hart be seated, Democrats can afford very few defections given the near certainty that all Republicans will vote against seating her no matter what.

“Losing a House election by six votes is painful for Democrats,” tweeted Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) on Monday. “But overturning it in the House would be even more painful for America. Just because a majority can, does not mean a majority should.”

Read the Hart brief here:

And the Miller-Meeks brief here:

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