U.S. House Democrats to face a dilemma in January over Iowa’s contested 2nd District race

By: - December 24, 2020 11:00 am

The U.S. House is shown here in a file photo from October 2019. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — When the U.S. House of Representatives convenes on Jan. 3, Democratic leaders will have to decide whether or not to swear in the woman certified as the winner in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District amid a challenge to those results.

Such challenges are not unheard of, but they’ve rarely been successful. Still, with a narrow majority for Democrats, it adds another layer of complexity to the start of the next congressional session.

Former Iowa Sen. Rita Hart, a Democrat, ran for the 2nd Congressional District seat. (Photo courtesy of Hart campaign)

Democrat Rita Hart is seeking to overturn the results in the southeastern Iowa district, where vote tallies approved by the state’s canvassing board showed Hart losing to Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks by six votes: 196,964 to 196,958.

But Hart says those tallies don’t include 22 ballots that were wrongly excluded. She has asked the U.S. House to investigate and declare her the winner.

Republicans have accused Hart of a partisan power grab, arguing that she should have sought a remedy from Iowa judges instead of the Democratic-controlled chamber.

Hart’s complaint, filed Tuesday with the House Administration Committee, launches an investigation process and a vote by the full House.

Here’s a Q-and-A on what to expect from the House investigation:

How often have candidates sought to have the House overturn their election results?

From 1933 to 2009, the U.S. House has considered 107 contested election cases, and most were dismissed, according to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report.

In at least three cases, the House ultimately seated the person contesting the results, and in at least one case, the House refused to seat any individual, declaring a vacancy.

The most recent instance when the House reversed the outcome was in 1985, when state-certified election results in Indiana’s 8th District showed Republican Rick McIntyre defeating Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey by 34 votes. The House initially did not seat either candidate, and after its own recount, McCloskey was sworn in.

What happens now that Hart has filed her complaint? 

The chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said in a statement Tuesday that her panel “is in the early stage of reviewing” the complaint, and that Miller-Meeks will have 30 days to respond.

“The committee intends to closely review filings from both campaigns, as the law requires,” Lofgren said.

During the investigation, candidates can subpoena witnesses and documents, and take sworn depositions, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The investigating committee can impound election records and ballots, conduct a recount, and interview election personnel before making its recommendation to the House.

What will happen on swearing-in day?

Congressional precedent suggests that Miller-Meeks likely will be sworn in on Jan. 3, but that process may come with a legal footnote.

Iowa state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks has been certified as winner of the 2nd Congressional District by six votes, but a challenge is likely. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

In at least 15 of the contested cases, the individual whose election was being challenged was asked to “step aside” or “remain seated” while the oath of office was administered to the other members-elect, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In most of those cases, the House adopted a resolution stating that the lawmaker-elect “be now permitted” to take the oath of office.

House parliamentarians have noted that the seating of the lawmaker being challenged is not intended to reflect on the final outcome of the House investigation.

Asked whether Miller-Meeks will be sworn in, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., referred questions to the House Administration Committee. The spokesman for that panel’s chairwoman responded by citing the Congressional Research Service report’s description of what has typically happened in previous instances.

What does this mean for the narrow Democratic majority in the House? 

House Democrats appear poised to start the new session with a narrow majority of 222-211, meaning the outcome of one seat could make a big difference.

But the Iowa seat is not the only one still to be resolved. It’s not yet clear if the results of New York’s 22nd Congressional District will be finalized before January. Democratic incumbent Anthony Brindisi and Republican challenger Claudia Tenney were separated by 19 votes, and have been locked in a court battle since the election.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Iowa Capital Dispatch. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.