Don’t Buy The Spin: The House Process To Resolve The Iowa 2 Election Is Working Properly

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 18: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday, March 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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March 20, 2021 9:00 a.m.

Republicans have cast the contested election in Iowa’s second district as one of their outraged talking points this week, painting a House process to resolve the dispute as a long con by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to steal a congressional seat.

“Right now as we speak, Speaker Pelosi and Washington Democrats are literally trying to overturn a state-certified election here in Congress,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Thursday, adding: “You don’t often see hypocrisy this blatant and this shameless so quickly.”

They’ve been trying to establish a false equivalency between the House process to investigate an election decided by just six votes, and former President Donald Trump’s Republican-aided effort to toss millions of votes and overturn the 2020 election. 

“We live in cynical, jaded time, but that doesn’t mean we all have to give into it,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who sits on the House Administration Committee that’s adjudicating the case, told CNN. “We just have to do our jobs.”

Process In Washington

What Republicans are making out to be tyrannical House overreach is actually a fairly commonplace congressional procedure historically, though its usage has plummeted in recent years. The House has reviewed many contested elections: over 100 of them since 1933, according to Rich Arenberg, interim director at Brown University’s Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy.

Rita Hart, the Democratic candidate in Iowa, filed a claim under the Federal Contested Elections Act, which brought the case to the House Administration Committee. The law is the main avenue through which candidates can lodge a challenge, and came about in 1969. It brings the claim to the committee and ultimately the House, which is empowered by Article 1 Section 5 of the Constitution to judge the “elections and returns” of its own members. 

“The committee has handled things correctly so far,” said Jeff Jenkins, provost professor of public policy, political science and law at the University of Southern California. “Hart didn’t do anything wrong by filing a claim.”

There is actually one, much lower-profile FCEA challenge in this Congress, filed by Republican Jim Oberweiss, who lost to Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) by about 5,300 votes in November. Before that, the House had not considered FCEA challenges since 2012 when it dismissed three of them, according to a January Congressional Research Service report

Back In Iowa

Hart lost her election, which state officials certified, by just six votes out of nearly 400,000 to Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who Pelosi provisionally sat at the beginning of the term. A recount was conducted, but was kept to the universe of ballots that were already counted. Hart maintains that she’s identified 22 others that were improperly rejected; if they had been counted, she says, she would have won. 

Republicans object to the fact that Hart did not appeal the certification through the state court system before bringing her claim before the House, arguing that it was a deliberate ploy to put the case before a friendly audience in the majority-Democratic chamber. 

Hart said that there simply wasn’t time to challenge the certification through the court system. Per Iowa law, Hart would have had to file to set up the contest court within two days of certification (November 30), a body which then would have to be filled out with the state chief justice and four appointed judges to execute a recount in the neighborhood of 400,000 ballots — all by December 8. 

“That is an enormous task and her point is legitimate,” said Karen Kedrowski, director of Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.

“While Republicans in the state maintain that the Hart campaign should have exhausted the state level procedures, there is not a requirement that they do so,” added Donna Hoffman, professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. 

The recount conducted before certification, which whittled Miller-Meeks’ lead down from 47 votes to six, didn’t satisfy Hart’s concerns. Aside from not considering the ballots she identified as improperly discarded — which, according to voter affidavits in her claim, center on very routine ballot issues like misplaced signatures and detached envelopes — different counties administered the recount in different ways. Some did it by hand, some did it by machine and some used a mix of both. Her campaign charges that the lack of uniformity is an additional problem. 

House Administration Committee chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) said that she hopes to have the Iowa 2 case decided this spring. Initial briefs from both sides are due Monday. The committee will examine the evidence, vote on a recommendation as a committee, then send that recommendation to the full House for a vote. The committee could recommend that either candidate be seated, the seat be declared vacant or even that a recount be ordered, according to Arenberg. Hart will have the burden of proof.

The process will almost certainly be rancorous, as indicated by Republican attitudes so far. But at its heart, it’s decidedly normal. Hart is pursuing a path open to her under the law, and has followed the proper steps to file her claim. In 2020, Trump tried to lie to the public, wheedle judges and concoct ballot fraud to contest an election he lost, in the end, by over 7 million votes. The only thing the two have in common is the intense partisan headwinds they kicked up. 

“With only six votes separating the two candidates in the certified vote, this was the closest election in the 2020 cycle,” Hoffman said. “The stakes are extraordinarily high in a time of hyperpartisanship and unfortunately, however this race is ultimately decided, the supporters of the losing candidate will likely feel aggrieved.”

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