Rita Hart calls for U.S. House panel to conduct hand recount of ballots in disputed Iowa race

By: - March 23, 2021 4:52 pm

Democrat Rita Hart, who has withdrawn her appeal of results of the 2nd Congressional District election, is shown here during the 2020 campaign outside a school in Bennett, where she once taught. (Photo courtesy of Rita Hart campaign)

WASHINGTON — Rita Hart, the Democrat challenging the results in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, is urging a U.S. House panel to do a hand recount of the 400,000 ballots cast to ensure all of the votes were properly counted.

Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks has been seated even as Democrat Rita Hart challenges the election results. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, the Republican certified by state officials as the winner by a six-vote margin, is criticizing Hart for not challenging the results in Iowa’s courts, and says the burden of proof is on her former opponent to prove why her challenge is anything but partisan politics.

Those arguments are the latest volleys in the now nationalized electoral spat, which could take until at least July to resolve. Another member of the Iowa congressional delegation got involved Tuesday, too, when Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson and other House Republicans sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi backing Miller-Meeks.

Hart and Miller-Meeks submitted responses Monday to questions from the House Committee on Administration, the Democratic-controlled panel tasked with deciding if there’s merit to Hart’s objection to the certified results.

The outcome of that investigation will have ramifications not just for the Iowa district’s voters, but for the Democrats’ narrow majority in the House of Representatives — and for moderate Democrats who could find themselves forced to vote to overturn state-certified results in Iowa in order to seat Hart. Democrats control the chamber 219-211, with five vacancies.

Some House Dems balk 

Several Democratic lawmakers have begun expressing reservations about the election challenge, amid outcry from Republicans that Hart and Democratic leaders — who reportedly are paying Hart’s legal fees to Marc Elias, a top Democratic election lawyer — should abandon the challenge.

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

“As I have said before in connection with the 2020 presidential election, legislators should be heeding states’ certifications of their elections,” Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., said in a written statement. “Unless there is rampant error and substantial evidence thereof, I do not believe it is the role of House members to dictate the outcome of elections.”

Asked Tuesday whether Hart’s campaign would abandon the challenge if enough House Democrats are opposed to sink a floor vote on declaring her as the rightful winner, Elias dismissed the concern as “way down the road from where we are.”

“I am always of the opinion that if the results show that more lawful votes are cast for one candidate than the other, people are, Democrats and Republicans alike, are going to be fair minded about it and are going to want to make sure that the will of the voters is followed,” he told reporters during a Zoom call Tuesday.

Elias also sought to separate Hart’s challenge from the vague challenges that former President Donald Trump unsuccessfully filed in multiple states following the November election. Republicans have accused Democrats of hypocrisy for opposing Trump’s baseless attempts but supporting the challenge in Iowa’s 2nd District.

Elias tracked the court outcomes in Trump’s election objections, and argued that unlike the former president’s legal team, Hart is raising concerns about a specific number of ballots that could overturn the outcome of the race.

“These are not categories of voters. These are not hypothetical voters. These are not theoretical voters,” he said. “These are actual people who live in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District who had their right to vote denied due to problems with the election administration or election judge error.”

22 ballots

At the heart of Hart’s challenge are 22 ballots that her campaign argues were not counted due to errors by election officials. Those include ballots that were cast curbside, others that Hart’s team says were accepted for counting but not tallied, and another in which they say officials erroneously concluded that the ballot envelope was not signed.

The state-certified results showed a six-vote win for Miller-Meeks in the November general election race to replace now-retired Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack: 196,964 to 196,958.

A recount before the certification narrowed but did not show Hart overcoming what had been a larger lead for Miller-Meeks.

Republicans in Iowa and on Capitol Hill have blasted Hart for not challenging the election results in state court before asking Congress to resolve the issue.

“The Rita Hart strategy is now more clear than ever: ignore Iowa law at every stage of this process and hope her fellow partisans will deliver her the result she needs,” Miller-Meeks campaign attorney Alan Ostergren said in a written statement.

Hart’s campaign has argued she did not do so because Iowa statute does not offer enough time for a sufficient appeal process.

Miller-Meeks was provisionally seated to represent the district along with other newly elected lawmakers, and has voted and conducted business like any other member. She filed a response to Hart’s challenge last month, arguing the claim should be dismissed.

Her new Republican colleagues in Congress have signed on to several letters in support of her, which lambaste House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., over the pending election challenge.

Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson represents Iowa’s 1st Congressional District. (Photo submitted by Ashley Hinson campaign)

“We are astounded by your hypocrisy as the speaker to support an investigation into this free and fair election while simultaneously claiming voter fraud does not exist nationally,” wrote Iowa Rep. Ashley Hinson, in a letter signed by 124 GOP lawmakers.

“If election security concerns are unwarranted, as you claim, then there is certainly no reason for the Committee on House Administration to be moving forward with such an outrageous request to unseat the legitimately elected congresswoman.”

Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, who drew national attention when Trump pressured him to change the state’s November election results, also has joined the GOP outcry,  warning Georgia Democrats in Congress against voting to seat Hart.

Pelosi has defended the process to review election results, which occurs regularly but rarely reaches a conclusion that overturns state-certified election results.

In the 71-page filing to the House panel, Hart’s legal team suggests a full hand count of the ballots cast, but also expressed openness to a narrower review of the 22 ballots they have identified as unfairly excluded.

Hart’s team pointed fingers at Miller-Meeks, saying she has not disputed their claims about the 22 ballots, nor identified any other ballots that call the results into question.

Attorneys for Miller-Meeks argued in their filing Monday that as the race’s certified winner, she has few obligations at this point in the investigation to show proof that she is in fact the winner.

“She need only admit or deny Hart’s allegations, or say nothing at all,” Ostergren and the other attorneys wrote.

The process of resolving the dispute is far from over.

The committee, which has wide latitude in carrying out an investigation, asked each side to outline a timeline for how the process should unfold.

Hart’s team sketched out a timeline that could lead to a decision in July. Miller-Meeks and her attorneys offered fewer details on timing, saying it was not yet clear if any extensions could be required to the fact-finding process.

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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.