IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -
Democrat Rita Hart asked the U.S. House on Tuesday to investigate and overturn the race that Iowa says she lost by six votes, arguing that 22 ballots were wrongly excluded and others weren’t examined during the recount.
In a notice of contest, Hart argued that she would have netted 15 votes and defeated Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks had the 22 ballots been tallied in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District.
Hart’s filing asks the Democratic-led House to nullify the state-certified results, count the excluded ballots and conduct a uniform hand recount in the district’s 24 counties. She expressed confidence she will be the winner after that process.
“Although it is admittedly tempting to close the curtain on the 2020 election cycle, prematurely ending this contest would disenfranchise Iowa voters and award the congressional seat to the candidate who received fewer lawful votes,” Hart lawyer Marc Elias wrote in the 176-page filing.
Elias, a veteran of election contests nationwide, called it “an exceptionally unlikely scenario” for a candidate to be able to identify enough specific wrongly-rejected ballots that could change an election’s outcome.
But Miller-Meeks and other Republicans accused Hart of seeking to be installed through a partisan power grab after losing a close election involving nearly 400,000 voters.
“Hart now wants a process run by one Californian, Nancy Pelosi, and decided in Washington’s hyper-partisan, dysfunctional atmosphere and not according to Iowa law,” said Miller-Meeks, who has 30 days to respond to Hart’s filing.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Hart “an excellent candidate” earlier this month, and said the chamber will decide who it will seat after the contest process. House Administration Committee chairperson Zoe Lofgren said the panel had started reviewing Hart’s filing.
Hart’s challenge is potentially awkward for both parties. Many Republicans supported or were silent as President Donald Trump waged a baseless drive to overturn results in several states he lost in an unsuccessful bid to reverse his reelection defeat. They stressed that every legal vote should count, the same argument Hart is making. Democrats, meanwhile, cited state certification of vote results among many reasons why Trump should concede.
Iowa’s canvassing board certified Miller-Meeks as the winner by a vote margin of 196,964 to 196,958, the closest congressional race since 1984. Her victory would narrow the Democratic House majority, which is 222-211 with two races uncalled.
The certification followed a recount in which Hart nearly erased the 47-vote lead that Miller-Meeks held after the initial canvass. The lead had earlier flipped back and forth between the candidates after the discovery and correction of major tabulation errors.
Hart announced this month that she would not challenge the outcome in Iowa’s courts, saying state law would have required a contest to be decided within days and didn’t allow for adequate time to examine thousands of ballots.
Instead, she filed her challenge under a 1969 law, the Federal Contested Elections Act, which will trigger an investigation by the House Administration Committee that could last months. To prevail, Hart must show by a preponderance of evidence she got the most votes.
Republicans have reacted with outrage to Hart’s maneuver, saying she is bypassing a review by Iowa judges while attempting to have Democrats declare her the winner.
Hart has argued that every vote must be counted in a race so close, and she called for a fair review in the House.
“Iowans deserve to know that the candidate who earned the most votes is seated,” Hart said.
It’s not clear whether the House will allow Miller-Meeks to take office Jan. 3. If she is sworn in, the House could still later declare Hart the winner.
According to a 2010 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the House reviewed 107 contested elections between 1933 and 2009 and seated the candidate the state had certified as the winner in the overwhelming majority of cases.
The report says the House declared the challenger the winner in at least three cases, most recently after a 1984 Indiana race in which majority Democrats overturned the state outcome and ruled that incumbent Democrat Frank McCloskey won by four votes.
During the process, candidates can take sworn depositions and subpoena witnesses. The committee can impound ballots and voting records and does not have to follow state law about which votes are counted, which could be crucial in Hart’s challenge.
Hart’s filing notes that 11 ballots weren’t counted because of mistakes by poll workers, including nine ballots discovered during the recount in Marion County and two curbside votes that weren’t put into a tabulation machine in Scott County.
Elections officials agree those were valid votes. But under Iowa law, they could not be considered during the recount since they were not included in the initial canvass. Hart would have picked up seven votes, Miller-Meeks three.
In addition, Hart outlines 11 other ballots that she says were wrongly excluded from voters who supported her.
Those included absentee ballots that were rejected because return envelopes were not sealed properly or were resealed using tape after they arrived in the mail sealed. One envelope was ripped; another was signed but not on the signature line.
Johnson County apologized to another voter whose provisional ballot was excluded after an election worker’s error. Two others ballots were not counted after they were left at a drop box outside the district in Cedar Rapids, where the voters attend school.
All signed affidavits saying they voted for Hart, and Elias said their ballots should be available for investigators to confirm.
Hart also argues that the recount was unconstitutional because each county used a different method - machine, hand or a combination.
Ninety-seven ballots marked by machines as overvotes - meaning the voter selected more than one candidate - weren’t visually inspected for intent during the recount, the filing says. An expert hired by Hart’s campaign estimated that, based on patterns in other counties, intent can likely be determined for dozens of them.
In addition, thousands of ballots marked as undervotes in which voters didn’t pick any candidate weren’t reviewed during the recount.
AP reporter Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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