Another Capitol showdown.
Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A legal effort to try to overturn the results of the 2020 election is still ongoing. But it’s not like Donald Trump’s false claims of victory, which culminated in the attack on the Capitol on January 6. There are no accusations of elaborate conspiracies or Machiavellian plots hatched from Hugo Chavez’s tomb. The MyPillow guy is nowhere to be found, and the parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping remains unsullied.
Instead, Iowa Democrat Rita Hart is asking the House to declare her the victor in November’s election for the open seat in Iowa’s Second Congressional District over Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks. Hart’s claim is simple: Iowa’s certified results put her six votes behind Miller-Meeks, but her legal team points to 22 ballots that they argue were wrongly cast aside by election officials and, if properly counted, would give Hart a nine-vote victory. “Every legal voter in this country has a right to have their ballot counted and the remedy here is clear — count the ballots,” her campaign said in a statement.
One such ballot is that of JoDonna Loetz who was told there might be issues with her absentee ballot and then went to her polling place to vote on Election Day, where she was reassured that her absentee ballot was counted. It turned out it wasn’t, and she had no idea until the Hart campaign informed her after the fact. Loetz followed all the instructions and did what she was told, but her vote wasn’t counted under state law. The question is whether the House should follow state law or use a different standard.
“I think we have to go by the book,” said Representative Ashley Hinson, a Republican from Iowa. She argued that the 22 ballots pointed to by Hart’s team “didn’t meet election law standards in Iowa and that’s why, when votes were counted, recounted and certified, they didn’t count, and that’s why the margin is six votes and those six votes were the deciding votes, not these 22 that are in question and did not meet the standard of state law.”
Under a provision of federal law, Hart’s legal team, led by Democratic superlawyer Marc Elias, decided to bypass Iowa courts entirely and pursue a process that requires the House Administration Committee to serve as the arbiter and eventually bring its decision to a vote on the floor of the House, where Democrats are in the majority. “I don’t know how anybody could say they sincerely believe Rita Hart won,” said Miller-Meeks’s attorney Alan Ostergren.
Republicans have cried foul that Hart ignored the judicial system and has only pursued the partisan path of appealing to Congress — they’ve even drawn analogies to those who supported Trump’s efforts to use Congress to try to throw out electoral votes in 2020 and keep him as president. “It’s the ultimate in hypocrisy, in my mind,” said Hinson, who voted to certify the 2020 presidential election. “I’ve been consistent on this. States decide elections. Congress does not.” Senator Tom Cotton has even launched an effort to have corporate donors treat those who support Hart’s challenge the same way as those who supported overturning the 2020 election.
Zoe Lofgren, the Democratic chair of the House Administration Committee pushed back at this argument in a statement to Intelligencer. “Republicans know how this process works — over the past 90 years the Congress has adjudicated, in a bipartisan manner, more than a hundred contested elections cases filed by Republicans and Democrats alike in races nowhere near as close as Iowa’s Second. With that history in mind, it is profoundly disappointing some of my Republican colleagues are now painting this process as somehow nefarious,” she said.
While the process of contesting an election in the House may be common, it rarely leads to a result being overturned. The most recent case was in Indiana, in 1984, when Republican Rick McIntyre was originally ruled the winner by 34 votes, over Democrat Frank McCloskey, in a House district so competitive that it was infamously dubbed “the Bloody Eighth.” However, McCloskey challenged the results, and McIntyre was not seated. Eventually, the Democratic-controlled House determined that McCloskey won by four votes. It prompted an uproar by Republicans convinced that the race was being stolen and provided rocket fuel to Newt Gingrich’s efforts to use grievance politics to take over the GOP. The once-shocking scenes, broadcast by C-SPAN, of furious Republicans angrily shouting on the House floor after McCloskey was seated now seem tame.
But this isn’t just a legal debate about election processes, it’s also a political one that even some Democrats appear uncomfortable with, and it’s one that Democrats are losing in the court of public opinion. Dean Philips, a two-term representative from Minnesota, tweeted on Monday, “Losing a House election by six votes is painful for Democrats. But overturning it in the House would be even more painful for America. Just because a majority can, does not mean a majority should.”
For Republicans, it is a gift that keeps giving. It is an issue that energizes base voters, is perfect fodder for Fox News segments and Wall Street Journal editorials, without alienating any swing voters and helps memory-hole the ugly aftermath of the 2020 election. For Democrats, with a slim House majority, every seat in Congress is valuable — even if it’s one like Iowa’s Second, due to come under the knife in redistricting. The question is whether it is worth giving up the moral high ground that Trump handed them.