Rita Hart answers a question during a debate with Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. | Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette via AP
A Democratic candidate who fell six votes short of holding an open battleground congressional district in Iowa is planning to challenge those results directly with the House, placing the chamber in the highly unusual position of potentially determining the outcome of the race.
After what appears to be the tightest congressional election in decades, Rita Hart, a state senator, has decided to forgo a legal battle in her home state and will instead contest the election directly with the House Administration Committee. Iowa election officials certified Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks as the winner on Monday after a recount diminished her initial victory margin from 47 votes to only 6 votes.
The move, the aggressiveness of which has stunned some Democrats, will trigger a rarely used congressional process, which was memorably deployed to settle an election in the mid-1980s. But the stakes are high: Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a severely diminished majority, which could be as small as five votes after sustaining unexpected losses last month.
But some Democrats question the optics of challenging certified election results, as President Donald Trump still refuses to concede and makes baseless claims of widespread election fraud, despite losing by much larger margins than the Iowa race.
Hart faced a deadline Wednesday to appeal the recount results through state channels. Under Iowa law, Hart’s challenge would trigger the formation of a tribunal, which would include the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and four other district court judges. That panel would have until Dec. 8 to rule on the matter, a timeline that the Hart campaign suggested would be insufficient.
“With a margin this small, it is critical that we take this next step to ensure Iowans’ ballots that were legally cast are counted,” said Zach Meunier, Hart’s campaign manager.
Many operatives in both parties thought Hart would exhaust all state methods of challenging the election before seeking relief from the House of Representatives, in part because it will force the new, smaller Democratic majority to wade into a state election.
The process for contesting an election with the House is complex. If Hart challenges the results under the Federal Contested Elections Act of 1969, the case would be referred to the House Administration Committee, which could conduct an investigation of its own before making a recommendation to the full House, which would decide by a simple majority vote whom to seat.
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The process that played out under this act after the 1984 election was exceedingly bitter. The Democratic-controlled House under Speaker Tip O’Neill refused to seat Republican Richard McIntyre, even after Indiana’s secretary of state certified McIntyre as the winner over incumbent Rep. Frank McCloskey (D-Ind.). McCloskey objected to what he said was a rushed certification and inconsistent standards for counting ballots, and McIntyre was not seated in the House.
The nonpartisan General Accounting Office conducted a recount and found McCloskey the winner by four votes. The House voted to seat him, triggering a walkout protest from Republicans. At the time, Democrats had a larger majority and did not need the extra seat as badly as they do now.