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Iowa contested election presents a conundrum for Pelosi

Jon Ward
·Chief National Correspondent
·8 min read
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Republicans have put House Democrats on their heels by framing a contested election in Iowa as an attempt to overturn the results, seeking to charge Democrats with hypocrisy after the bipartisan condemnation in January of those in Congress who called the 2020 presidential election into question.

It’s not clear, however, that Democrats are doing anything different from the way Congress has handled contested elections for nearly 100 years.

Since 1933, there have been 110 House elections that were disputed and adjudicated by the House of Representatives, according to the Congressional Research Service. This year there are two. In Iowa, Democrat Rita Hart is contesting an election in which a state recount declared Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks the winner. And in Illinois, Republican Jim Oberweis is contesting an election in which Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood was declared the winner.

The House Administration Committee is in the process of reviewing the complaints in both elections, but the top-ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said this month that it sets a “dangerous precedent” to consider the Iowa complaint.

Democrats have been put on their heels, unwilling to even appear to be toying with something similar to the efforts by former President Donald Trump to overturn his election loss last year. "I'm sorry, I cannot support overturning an election, especially given everything that's gone on and what we've been hearing from the Republican side of the aisle," Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-MI, said on the "Skullduggery" podcast.

Reps. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, and Burgess Owens, R-Utah, are seen during a group photo with freshmen members of the House Republican Conference on the House steps of the Capitol on January 4, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Reps. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, and Burgess Owens, R-Utah, on the House steps of the Capitol on Jan. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

"I mean, that's their whole schtick. They attempted to delegitimize the results of the election and not certify those elections ... They tried to use violence to stop us from certifying an election," Slotkin told Yahoo News. "I can't turn around and vote to decertify something that's been stamped and approved in Iowa."

House Administration Committee Chairman Zoe Lofgren, D-CA, issued a statement Wednesday evening reiterating the obligation her committee has to follow the law.

“We did not seek out these contests, but we are obligated under federal law to follow the process and the facts," Lofgren said. “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," Lofgren said.

The last time the House reviewed contested elections was in 2013, when it dismissed objections to three contests. The last time the results of an election were changed by Congress was in 1985, when a Democratic-controlled House awarded a seat in Indiana to a Democrat. Another dozen or so challenges to election results were reviewed and dismissed by the House Administration Committee between 1985 and 2013.

In 1984, Rep. Francis McCloskey, a Democrat from Indiana, was declared the winner by a margin of 72 votes out of more than 116,000 total ballots cast. But a state-run recount awarded the victory to Republican challenger Richard McIntyre by a margin of 34 votes. The House of Representatives, which was controlled by Democrats at the time as it is now, did its own recount and awarded the victory back to McCloskey by a margin of four votes.

Republicans angrily walked out of the House chamber in 1985 when the House voted to seat McCloskey. They were joined by 10 Democrats in voting against the result.

Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, compared the current Iowa dispute to the one in 1985 during a virtual committee meeting this month. He and other Republicans argued that Hart did not exhaust her options under Iowa state law, so Congress cannot supersede the state result, which was certified.

Like the 1984 contest in Indiana, the election in Iowa last fall was one of the closest elections in U.S. history. Miller-Meeks was declared the winner by a margin of only six votes out of more than 393,000.

Hart’s campaign says it has identified 22 ballots that were incorrectly disqualified by election officials, and it has sworn affidavits for each of those ballots. It also says it did not exhaust its options in Iowa’s legal process because state law required a decision by Dec. 8, which the campaign said was not enough time for a full examination of contested ballots.

Former Iowa State Senator Rita Hart speaks with a reporter at her home in Wheatland, Iowa in 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Former Iowa state Sen. Rita Hart at her home in Wheatland, Iowa, in 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

The Hart campaign submitted a 155-page filing to the House Administration Committee on Dec. 22.

A House Democratic aide told Yahoo News that reviewing the facts of the case is “a regular, normal activity for the committee” that has precedent and is allowed under federal law.

In recent years, a Democratic-controlled House has reviewed close elections and dismissed challenges by Democratic candidates. In 2008, Democrats dismissed a challenge by Democrat Christine Jennings to the results of a 2006 election in Florida that she narrowly lost to Republican Vern Buchanan. Lofgren was on the task force that made that decision, an aide said.

Republicans now say Lofgren’s approach to the Iowa dispute is different than the way Democrats handled the 2006 election challenge. A spokesman for Lofgren rejected that accusation. The disagreement over this point relates to the scope of a letter sent to both sides by Lofgren on March 10. A spokeswoman for Davis, the Republican on the committee, said it “put the burden of proof” on the Republican winner and “limited their discovery options.”

Only three results other than the 1984 election have been changed by Congress. In 1934, a House election in Louisiana was declared null. New Hampshire Republican Arthur Jenks won a 1936 election, but the House investigated and declared Democrat Alphonse Roy the winner. And in 1961, the House rejected a narrow victory by Indiana Republican George Chambers in an election the year before, awarding the seat to Democrat J. Edward Roush.

It’s rare for Congress to overturn an election result that has been certified by a state, as evidenced by the historical record. “Although the House has broad authority over its elections, a state-issued election certificate generally provides prima facie evidence of the regularity and results of an election to the House,” the Congressional Research Service wrote in a January report.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., speaks as the House debates the objection to confirm the Electoral College vote from Pennsylvania, at the U.S. Capitol early Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. (House Television via AP)
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., during the House debate on confirming Electoral College votes in the early hours of Jan. 7. (House Television via AP)

A filing Monday by lawyers for Miller-Meeks, the Iowa Republican, echoed this point.

It’s not legally required that a candidate exhaust all options in state court, but the case has given Republicans an opportunity to hit Democrats for taking their complaints out of the courts and into Congress, a partisan body.

And this has already made several House Democrats uncomfortable. A handful made public statements over the past few days expressing disapproval of any vote to change the result.

“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,” Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., tweeted on Monday.

It creates an awkward situation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., whose majority is slim at just 219 Democrats to 211 Republicans. Normal procedure would appear to be that the House Committee would move forward with examining the facts, in both the Iowa challenge and the Illinois contest, which was nowhere near as close. Underwood, the Democrat, was declared the winner by a margin of over 5,000 votes.

But in the wake of Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election by making up claims of cheating and then relying on Republican allies in Congress to support opposing the state certifications of the results, Republicans are now using the Iowa election to try to muddy the waters and argue that both sides do the same thing, in part to undermine the Democrats’ push for a massive voting rights bill.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 11, 2021.      (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 11, 2021. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

“It goes against everything they were preaching over the last two months about the sanctity of state certification,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a hearing Wednesday about the voting legislation that has passed the House but faces Republican opposition in the Senate.

The 2020 election lies told by Trump and his allies, and their attempts to overturn that election's result, are not at all similar to the Iowa challenge, but the laws governing how to adjudicate close contests give Republicans room to claim that they are in the same category.

The Republican argument, the House Democratic aide said, “is that we shouldn't even look at this.” It may be more of a political argument than a legal one, but it’s one that Pelosi can’t ignore.

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images, AP, Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

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