Breaking down Iowa’s 6-vote 2nd District U.S. House appeal

While the U.S. House has the ultimate decision in determining congressional races, Rita Hart could have gone through Iowa’s court system before taking the 2nd Congressional District battle to Washington.

Senator+Mariannette+Miller-Meeks+%28left%29+speaks+with+a+member+of+UISG+during+the+Hawkeye+Caucus+at+the+State+Capitol+in+Des+Moines+on+April+9%2C+2019.+Iowa+State+Senator+Rita+Hart+%28right%29+speaks+with+supporters+during+her+meet+and+greet+at+Yotopia+on+June+30%2C+2019.+

Katie Goodale

Senator Mariannette Miller-Meeks (left) speaks with a member of UISG during the Hawkeye Caucus at the State Capitol in Des Moines on April 9, 2019. Iowa State Senator Rita Hart (right) speaks with supporters during her meet and greet at Yotopia on June 30, 2019.

Mary Hartel, News Reporter


PolitiFact Iowa is a project of The Daily Iowan’s Ethics & Politics Initiative and PolitiFact to help you find the truth in politics.


Edited by Lyle Muller and Sarah Watson

A 6-vote difference in the race for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives has taken a sharp turn for Washington — a move Republicans claim has bypassed Iowa law. 

Democrat Rita Hart is asking the U.S. House to determine who won the race between her and the Republican candidate Iowa certified as the winner, Mariannette Miller-Meeks. Republicans in Iowa say Hart should use a court panel Iowa law created for this kind of dispute.

Democrats respond by saying Hart is following the U.S. Constitution, which gives the House authority to determine the qualifications for its members.

The background

After the announcement, the Hart campaign released legal plans to challenge the results in the U.S. House Committee on Administration––arguing that the Iowa courts would not have sufficient time to determine the true outcome. Miller-Meeks and other state Republican leaders, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, Sen. Joni Ernst, and Gov. Kim Reynolds immediately came out in opposition.

On Dec. 2, Miller-Meeks tweeted

“Rita Hart has chosen a political process controlled by Nancy Pelosi over a legal process controlled by Iowa judges. All Iowans should be outraged by this decision. #ia02”

Ernst also tweeted on the same day: 

“Iowans elected, and the state officially certified, @millermeeks as the winner of #IA02. Instead of going through Iowa’s process — letting our courts have a say — Rita Hart has decided to go to Nancy Pelosi and a Democratic House to reject Iowans’ votes and voices.”

The next day, Iowa’s two Republican senators released a joint statement titled “Miller-Meeks Won Her Election.”

“Both the original vote count and recount confirmed Mariannette Miller-Meeks won her election. There are legal avenues through which candidates can litigate election disputes if they believe there are specific election irregularities. Rita Hart declined to take legitimate legal action in Iowa courts and instead chose to appeal to Washington partisans who should have no say in who represents Iowans. That’s an insult to Iowa voters and our nonpartisan election process. We are confident in the fairness and accuracy of Iowa’s election system.”

According to Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution, the U.S. House has the ultimate power to determine who wins House elections. So why the push from Republicans to send the matter to court, other than that the House is controlled by Democrats?

Derek Muller, a University of Iowa professor of law who represented the Miller-Meeks campaign in the recount, said Congress has built up a body of internal precedence in how it handles election disputes and it typically entails a party exhausting all resources within the state before bringing a complaint to Congress.

Hart is within her right to take the case to the House of Representatives, but whether she exhausted all of her resources is a different question, Muller said.

The Iowa Congressional contest statute passed in 1970 created a provision for giving election challenges to a five-member court. In that situation, the Iowa Supreme Court’s chief justice would preside over an additional four district court judges. The Supreme Court picks the panel, which takes evidence and decides how to count votes.

Muller writes in his blog, Excess of Democracy that the special panel would have had a short timeline under Iowa Code, 60.5 and would have needed to wrap up by Dec. 8. 

But Iowa has not established a precedent for using that approach despite its availability because the procedure never has been used, Muller said. 

In The Des Moines Register, Iowa’s former lieutenant governor, Sally Pederson argued for the race to be determined by Congress to avoid rushing the process with such a tight margin and so many votes left to be counted. 

“While our election system here in Iowa is a good one, it’s not perfect. During the recount, many counties took more than 10 days to conduct a partial hand recount,” Pederson wrote. “Now, state court provides a window of only six days to conduct hearings, decide on procedure, have that procedure take place, and issue a ruling to count every ballot across our 24 counties. With so many votes left to count, that’s just too short a timeline”

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad argued the opposite on the paper’s same opinion page in a companion guest column.

“As Iowans, we are rightfully proud of our election system. Many of the problems that plague other states are not seen here,” Branstad wrote. “Our elections are open, transparent, and fair, encouraging Iowans to be civic-minded and have a basic level of trust in their elected officials. This year, reflecting their confidence in our system, Iowans turned out in record numbers to let their voices be heard.”

The House typically accepts the nominee whom the state certifies, Timothy Hagle, professor of political science at the University of Iowa, wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. The first step of any vote process, Hagle wrote, is a recount — which Hart requested and narrowed her loss from 47 votes to six. Then comes the Iowa Congressional Contest Act of 1970 and its provision for a panel of judges to reexamine the process, he wrote.

Hart used a process established by the Federal Contested Elections Act of 1969, but did not pursue every legal avenue in Iowa to challenge the results before taking it to the House, Hagle wrote.

Marke Kende, professor of law at Drake University said, however, that Hart did not bypass Iowa law and is within her right to go straight to the House because of the tight timeline.

“The Iowa provision requires a very speedy process. The faster the requirement, the greater chance of error,” Kende wrote in an email.

“The Republican objection is really politics, not principle, given the national party’s actions. Gov. Reynolds even said she wanted to join the frivolous pro-Trump Texas lawsuit that was unanimously rejected by a Supreme Court with 3 Trump appointees.”

A while ago, we wrote about another disputed race in Iowa for a seat in Congress. That race, in 1924, was for a Senate seat. In that case, a Senate subcommittee recommended that the person Iowa seated, Republican Smith Wildman Brookhart, be replaced with Democrat Daniel F. Steck. The Senate voted across party lines to seat Steck, who had lost the election by 764 votes. 

But that happened long before the rules in place now, plus it involved the Senate, and not the House. The lack of legal precedent for the dispute between Miller-Meeks and Hart means both sides have a claim on being right when it comes to the procedure that should be used.


Sources

Mariannette Miller-Meeks tweet, Dec. 2, 2020

Sen. Joni Ernst tweet, Dec. 2, 2020

Sen. Grassley and Sen. Ernst Statement, Washington D.C., Dec. 3, 2020

State of Iowa Election Canvass Summary, Iowa Secretary of State’s Office, Nov. 30, 2020.

The U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 5

Phone interview with Derek Muller, University of Iowa professor of law and an attorney on behalf of the Miller-Meeks campaign, Dec. 10, 2020

Iowa Code 60.1

“The very speedy timing of congressional election contests in Iowa” Blog post in Excess of Democracy, By Derek Muller, Nov. 30, 2020

Iowa Code 60.5

“Take the time to be sure every vote is counted,” The Des Moines Register, by Sally Pederson, Dec. 9, 2020

“Nancy Pelosi shouldn’t decide an Iowa election,” The Des Moines Register, by Terry Branstad, Dec. 9, 2020

Email Interview with Timothy Hagle, political science professor at the University of Iowa, Dec. 10, 2020

Federal Contested Elections Act of 1969

Email Interview with Mark Kende, professor of law at Drake University, Dec. 16, 2020

PolitiFact, “Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District vote controversy nothing compared to the 1924 election,” by Stephanie Gutierrez and Lyle Muller, Nov. 13, 2020.

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