When Iowa officials certified the results of the November election, Republican House candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks defeated Democrat Rita Hart by six votes out of 394,000 ballots cast. The margin of victory was one of the slimmest in history: 0.0015 percentage points.
To get a sense of just how close the election was, consider that Joe Biden’s tiny margin of victory in the Electoral College tipping-point state of Wisconsin was 0.63 points — 20,682 votes. If Biden had won the state of Wisconsin by the same percentage that gave Miller-Meeks a win in her Iowa congressional district, Biden would have carried the Badger State by just 50 votes.
Iowa officials had already conducted a recount before Miller-Meeks was certified as the winner, but Hart is challenging the result before the House of Representatives.
“The issue relating to Iowa is an issue for the House Administration Committee,” House speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference earlier this month. The “House decides who it will seat.”
As a constitutional matter, Pelosi was correct. The Constitution says that “each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members.” The most recent historical precedent for the House’s overturning the results of a certified election occurred in 1985. After an Indiana Republican candidate was certified the winner of the 1984 election, House Democrats had the General Accounting Office conduct their own recount, which they said showed Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey winning by four votes. Outraged House Republicans staged a walkout when McCloskey was seated.
As a practical and political matter, House Democrats will have a more difficult time overturning the results in Iowa in 2020 for a few reasons.
First of all, it was easier for Democrats to act with impunity back in 1985 because the House was a Democratic fiefdom that had been controlled by the party for all but four years since 1933. Tip O’Neill had little reason to worry about losing the majority. In 2021, Republicans will be only five to seven seats away from a majority. Pelosi knows a single seat isn’t worth inviting a backlash that could cost the party in the midterms.
Democrats will have to decide whether they want to open up this can of worms on January 3, when the next Congress is seated. That’s just three days before Congress counts the Electoral College votes, when at least a handful of House Republicans intend to launch baseless challenges to the Electoral College returns. Biden’s slim margin of victory was still big enough that there’s no real doubt about the legitimacy of his victory, but Democrat Rita Hart has come under fire from nonpartisan political observers for bypassing the Iowa courts and taking her case directly to the House. (Hart has claimed there wasn’t enough time for the courts to hear her case, a claim Iowa Republicans dispute.) Refusing to seat Miller-Meeks on January 3 would somewhat undermine the Democrats’ messaging against Republicans on January 6.
The biggest problem for Democrats is that in order to seat Hart without paying a significant political cost, they’d need to show in a clear and convincing manner that Hart really had won more votes — but there’s little reason to believe that could happen. The Iowa recount wasn’t perfect, but if anything it likely undercounted Miller-Meeks’s true tally. In Scott County, 131 more ballots were counted during the recount than on Election Day, but this likely error appears to have benefited Hart: She picked up 26 votes in Scott County, while in other counties the vote margin changed by only a handful of votes in either direction.
If another recount ordered up by House Democrats turns a six-vote Republican victory into a three-vote Democratic victory, there won’t be any real confidence that the vote counters got it right the second time around. And that’s why Democrats’ best bet may be to let the certified vote stand and let Rita Hart make her case again in 2022 to the voters of Iowa’s second congressional district.