A Democratic congressional candidate who fell six votes short of winning an open Iowa seat formally contested her loss with the U.S. House on Tuesday, setting the state for a partisan showdown in Congress next month.
Democrat Rita Hart, a former state senator, filed the 176-page complaint with the House Administration Committee, which will take the lead in investigating her contest. At issue, according to the Hart campaign, are 22 ballots that were not included in the initial tally or subsequent recounts but that Hart’s campaign says should’ve been included.
These ballots would give Hart a 9-vote lead and make her the victor of the race, which is one of the tightest in congressional history. She is asking for a full recount, citing “wildly inconsistent counting procedures from county to county.”
“Everyone has acknowledged that there are uncounted votes left. And after reviewing those ballots and making sure they are counted, it will be clear that I have won this election,” Hart said in a statement. “It is crucial to me to make sure that this bipartisan review by the U.S. House is fair.”
But Hart is placing the Democratic-controlled House in a tight spot. Democratic leaders will have to decide on Jan. 3, the first day of the 117th Congress, whether to seat Republican Mariannette Miller Meeks provisionally or leave the seat open while it investigates.
The House Administration Committee could conduct its own recounts, though lawmakers on the panel say privately they can’t speculate what they would pursue until reading the official complaint.
Hart is making her challenge under the Federal Contested Election Act, which allows a losing candidate to ask the new Congress determine the true victor of the seat, and she has retained the prominent Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias. Such contests are not uncommon, but a move by the Democratic-lead House to refuse to seat her opponent, even provisionally, would be extremely rare — it’s only happened three times since 1933, according to congressional records.
But leaving a vacancy would draw a fierce rebuke from Republicans.
“This election has been decided by Iowans. That decision should not be thrown into Washington’s hyper-partisan atmosphere,” Miller-Meeks campaign said in a statement. “It is shameful that Rita Hart does not have faith in Iowans and does not respect the decision of Iowa voters.”
Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee released a statement calling the move “a naked power grab.”
The results in Iowa’s 2nd District have been closely watched by House Democrats, not only because a Democratic winner could help improve caucus’ razor-thin margins on the floor come January.
Some Democrats are also privately concerned about the optics if their party leaders do hold off on the swearing-in of Miller Meeks — which, they say, would essentially be rejecting the results of a federal election at the same time that President Donald Trump is seeking to overturn the results of his race. Yet seating Miller-Meeks could potentially delegitimize Hart’s challenge.
Hart has already drawn some criticism after she opted to file her challenge directly with the House without first exhausting all state methods of contesting the results. Hart’s team has argued that the state process didn’t offer enough time for a full and fair recount.
Hart’s complaint details reasons why the 22 ballots in question were rejected: Two are ballots cast from vehicles because the voters had disabilities, nine are absentee ballots from Marion County that were “inexplicably” not included in the initial canvass; one is a provisional ballot uncounted due “an election worker error” and another was “unlawfully rejected” due to the placement of a signature on the ballot; seven ballots had been improperly sealed and another two ballots were placed in the wrong drop box.
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