GOP hardball pays off as Rita Hart drops IA-02 election contest

For the second straight election cycle, Iowa Republicans have gotten away with not counting disputed ballots in a race the GOP candidate won by fewer than ten votes.

Democrat Rita Hart announced on March 31 that she was withdrawing her contest of the election in Iowa’s second Congressional district, where Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks was certified the winner by six votes out of more than 394,000 cast.

Hart’s decision gets House Democrats out of a jam. For all the bad-faith Republican accusations about supposed plans to “steal” the seat, it’s long been clear the votes weren’t there to reverse the IA-02 outcome, no matter what an investigation determined. Last week, Democratic members of Congress began going on the record saying Iowa’s certified results should stand. Such conversations likely occurred behind the scenes months ago, which is why Miller-Meeks was sworn in along with the rest of House members on January 3.

For hypocrisy, it’s hard to top U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy thundering against “Pelosi’s Power Grab” after he voted against certifying the electoral college results from Pennsylvania and Arizona. McCarthy and more than 120 of his caucus members had no grounds to claim Joe Biden didn’t win those two states. Certified results show that Biden gained 10,457 more votes than Donald Trump in Arizona and 81,660 more votes than Trump in Pennsylvania.

In contrast, Hart’s campaign had identified 22 ballots never counted, and had obtained sworn affidavits from many of the voters involved. If the roles had been reversed, those voters would have been hyped by Fox News and conservative talk radio every day, and Republicans would be running ads in battleground districts saying democracy demands counting every vote in IA-02.

John Deeth, a longtime elections official in Johnson County, put it well when he wrote that Republicans have never answered one simple question: “Is it right that a voter should lose their vote, and that a candidate should lose a seat in Congress, because a precinct official or a temp worker made a mistake?”

Deeth explained why two provisional ballots in Johnson County were not counted, correctly in his view. I trust his interpretation of the relevant law. But other ballots, particularly two curbside ballots from Scott County and nine absentee ballots from Marion County, were clearly left out in error. No one should lose their right to vote because some poll worker forgot to run a ballot through the machine.

For the sake of optics, Hart should have attempted to contest the election in Iowa before going to Congress. But her legal team was correct about the time constraints. The Iowa contest court could never have thoroughly considered the issues at hand, much less order the full recount the situation warranted, by the December 8 deadline. (Some states allow much more time for federal election contests; Norm Coleman’s contest of Minnesota’s 2008 U.S. Senate race took months to resolve.)

It’s also indisputable that federal law allowed Hart to appeal in the House without exhausting her in-state options, just like Republican Bob Dornan did after losing a close 1996 race in California. The House Administration Committee–then under GOP control– allowed Dornan’s appeal to proceed in 1997, but did not seat him, because an investigation determined he did not receive more votes than his Democratic opponent.

Contrary to the drumbeat we’ve heard from Miller-Meeks and her allies, no one was ever asking for a “partisan political process” to overturn the IA-02 result. If a full recount and analysis of disputed ballots had shown that Miller-Meeks received a few more votes than Hart, more power to her. I have no interest in seating any candidate who didn’t gain the most votes in an election.

Iowa Republicans see things differently. If they can win by leaving a few people’s ballots uncounted, they will do so. Two years ago, Republicans used their Iowa House majority to ensure that 29 absentee ballots from House district 55 would never be counted. The U.S. Postal Service had confirmed the Winneshiek County voters mailed those ballots on time. A District Court judge had affirmed that Iowa law allowed the Democratic candidate to “conduct discovery, issue subpoenas and take depositions as part of the contest procedure,” and “to have the ballots opened and considered.”

Kayla Koether tried to go through that election contest process. Republicans didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. They voted along party lines in committee, and later on the Iowa House floor, to disregard the part of Iowa Code that explicitly allows disputed ballots to be opened during a contest. So State Representative Michael Bergan remained in office, certified the winner by nine votes.

Side note: the lead attorney in the successful effort to disenfranchise those Winneshiek County voters now serves on the Iowa Supreme Court.

In any event, Republicans won the messaging war in IA-02. They will keep pretending to care about the will of the voters, even as they genuflect to Trump and promote his Big Lie about the 2020 presidential race.

As Hart said in the statement released today, “the reality is that the toxic campaign of political disinformation to attack this constitutional review of the closest congressional contest in 100 years has effectively silenced the voices of Iowans.”

Following Hart’s decision, Miller-Meeks put up a video thanking IA-02 voters and calling for unity. As usual, she didn’t acknowledge that some of her constituents’ legally cast ballots were never counted. Miller-Meeks should encourage her friends in the Iowa legislature to correct state law, to guarantee that ballots wrongly excluded from an initial canvass can be recounted, that recounts examine every ballot the same way, and that Iowa courts have sufficient time to consider federal election contests. I’m not holding my breath.

Appendix: Full statement released by Rita Hart’s campaign on March 31:

“After many conversations with people I trust about the future of this contest, I have made the decision to withdraw my contest before the House Committee on Administration. Since Election Day, and throughout this entire process, my mission has been about ensuring the voices of Iowans who followed the law are not silenced. I am saddened that some Iowans’ votes will not count through no fault of their own. The work of ensuring it does not happen again will continue beyond this campaign.

Despite our best efforts to have every vote counted, the reality is that the toxic campaign of political disinformation to attack this constitutional review of the closest congressional contest in 100 years has effectively silenced the voices of Iowans. It is a stain on our democracy that the truth has not prevailed and my hope for the future is a return to decency and civility.

I wish Mariannette Miller-Meeks all the best as she serves the people of this great state as Congresswoman. This has been a difficult process for all of those involved and it’s incredibly important that we work together to reform the system so this does not happen again in the future.

Running to represent the people of Iowa’s Second Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives has been one of the greatest honors of my life. I got in this race to listen to the people of the district and bring your voices of common sense and decency to Washington, D.C. We must work to end the partisan gridlock and deliver for the working people in Iowa who are struggling to make ends meet.

To those who invested in this campaign — donating a few extra dollars they could spare or volunteering time — and to ALL of my supporters, my campaign team, and to my family, my children and grandchildren, and especially my husband Paul, thank you so much for your hope and passion. I could not have persevered on this journey without your tireless dedication and commitment.

I am a life-long Iowan and I will always work for a more prosperous future for our children and grandchildren. That won’t change regardless of this, or any, election. We have so much more to work for. I hope you all will stay involved and join me in working to make Iowa a better place for all.”

Top image: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (center) speaks at a March 31 news conference. Screenshot taken from the video McCarthy posted on Twitter.

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  • Shame on Republicans in the Legislature

    Good article. I was an observer in Johnson County during the absentee ballot count, and served on the Johnson County recount board. John Deeth, in the blog post that is linked in this article, was making a subtle point that can be easily missed. The two Johnson County ballots which were not counted were doomed due to errors in the office and at a voting site. I watched carefully, and believe that such errors were rare, and that the Johnson County staff is absolutely excellent. As a recount board, we were not permitted to reach back and consider ballots which had been previously not counted. Only the courts, or the US House of Representatives, can conclude that those two votes were legally cast (which I believe they were), even though clerical rules prohibited the Auditor’s office from counting them. Rita Hart and some voters never got their day in court. Iowa law only allowed about 8 days, which included a weekend, for the entire investigation of legally cast ballots which might have been excluded, any necessary further recounts, arguments, and decisions to be made. Iowa law does not allow a proper consideration of elections results by the courts. When the Republicans went to change the voting laws, they could have addressed that problem. Instead, they made it more difficult for Iowans to vote, and threatened Auditor’s office staff with fines and jail time for mailing voters absentee ballot request forms, and for a wide range of other actions, many of which would only help voters. Instead, they criminalized the act of helping a neighbor deliver their ballot to the Auditor’s office drop box. Shame on them.

    • So if my friend and neighbor down the road...

      …asked me in 2022 to take her ballot to the courthouse drop box and put it in when I take my ballot there, that would be a criminal offense? I thought that it was just organized efforts by political volunteers to pick up ballots that would be against the law (which is bad enough), but maybe I’ve underestimated Republican determination to suppress voting.