House Democrats' dangerous flirtation with election denial
In Iowa, party leaders are playing a dangerous game they will come to regret
In an election that will forever serve as proof that your vote really does count, Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks defeated Democratic candidate Rita Hart in November by just six votes out of almost 400,000 ballots cast in Iowa's 2nd congressional district. State officials certified the election months ago, yet House Democrats are moving ahead with a reckless effort to unseat Miller-Meeks and replace her with Hart. While there might be a case that Hart was the rightful winner of the race, Democrats must not set the kind of dangerous precedent that could be exploited by Republicans bent on using bogus voter fraud claims to steal elections in 2022 and 2024.
Hart's camp alleges that 22 ballots were improperly discarded by election workers, and that she won them 18-3, which should put her over the top. And yes, the reasons these ballots were set aside sound maddening — for some, an envelope wasn't sealed. Others were thrown away when a ballot box was labeled with the wrong number of votes. Yet Hart's lawyers decided to bypass the court system altogether and go directly to the House itself, contending that there was not enough time to see the process through before the certification deadline. And while that's true, what Hart should have done is let the legal process play out while reserving the right to ask the Democratic majority in the House to seat her if judges sided with her after Miller-Meeks was sworn in.
Technically, the House itself decides who to seat. The Constitution makes both chambers of Congress "the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members," and the Federal Contested Elections Act of 1969 sets out the procedures for how to appeal an election loss in the House.
It would not be unprecedented, but the last time the majority used this tactic to overturn an election result was in 1984, when a Democratic House majority seated Frank McCloskey over his challenger, Richard McIntyre, even though the latter's victory had been certified by the state of Indiana. It did not go over well, particularly with a young GOP representative named Newt Gingrich, who would go on to pioneer the kind of scorched earth policies we have come to associate with our politics. Wyoming Republican Rep. Dick Cheney, joining the chorus of outrage, declared: "I think we ought to go to war." Republicans walked out of the chamber en masse when McCloskey was sworn in. You don't have to consider this incident the wellspring of our troubles to see the kind of bad faith it created.
The McCloskey fiasco was more than a generation ago, and since then the two parties have kept the pin in this dubious procedural grenade. And it is not clear why anyone, especially Democrats, would want to set the precedent that temporary political majorities can just toss out representatives if there are questions about how an extraordinarily close race was decided. Absent the kind of intentional malfeasance or systematic irregularities that don't seem to be part of the problem in this case, Democrats should just take the L and move on.
Democrats were, righteously, aghast when a majority of the Republican congressional caucus signed onto a baseless attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election by asking state legislatures to submit alternate slates of electors. After the Jan. 6 sacking of the U.S. Capitol by a MAGA mob hopped up on Monster Energy drinks and Trump-fueled conspiracy theories, there were calls on the left to expel some of the more militant Republicans from Congress. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) introduced a resolution calling for an ethics investigation and possible expulsion from Congress for anyone found to have violated the 14th Amendment's prohibition on engaging in "insurrection or rebellion." The resolution had 47 Democratic co-sponsors, nearly a quarter of the House caucus. Thankfully, it went nowhere.
This is not to defend the execrable behavior of elected Republicans in the long, terrible months after Joe Biden's victory. Many of them cynically went along with Donald Trump's ham-fisted plot to overturn the results of the election because they knew it couldn't work. More worryingly in the long run, there is a large and growing bloc of GOP officials who don't believe in representative democracy at all, and who seem like they would do anything to gain power. The lot of them, from leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) down to the zaniest rank-and-file backbenchers like Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), don't seem to have given a moment's thought to how the country would have been torn to pieces had their shady scheme succeeded.
And Democrats rightly cried foul in January when Pennsylvania Republicans refused for weeks to seat a victorious Democrat, Jim Brewster, in the state Senate, instead asking a federal judge to disenfranchise more than 2,300 voters who cast absentee ballots because they didn't have a handwritten date on them. After a national hullabaloo, the GOP leadership relented when a district court judge ruled against the Republican candidate, Nicole Ziccarelli. But her case, which disputed decisions and interpretations of state law made by local election officials, differed only in degree rather than in kind from Hart's.
I'm not generally a fan of avoiding necessary and just action for fear of future retaliation, since Republicans have been the unapologetic aggressors in nearly every escalation of this hyper-partisan century, and hardly need an invitation to play constitutional hardball. That's a soiree they will crash almost every single time, and it's why Democrats should nuke the Senate's anti-democratic filibuster rule and use their power to pack the Supreme Court and add new states to the union. But these escalations wouldn't just benefit Democrats — they also rectify longstanding structural problems in American democracy, such as the lack of any voting representatives in Congress for the 700,000 citizens of the nation's capital city.
Is there any such lofty principle at stake in the Iowa House contest? Of course not. The party already has the majority in the House and has proven that the razor-thin margin by which Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) holds the speaker's gavel is no impediment to keeping most of the caucus on board for sweeping action like the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, the electoral reform bill known as H.R.1, and soon, for D.C. statehood. The fate of 22 ballots and a single, non-pivotal House seat simply does not justify shooting first in an escalation that could swallow American democracy whole.
After all, what's to prevent the next Republican majority in the House from tossing out dozens of Democratic representatives on some flimsy pretext like deeming results in any state using mail-balloting illegitimate? Are they going to try it anyway? Probably! But in this case there is real value in standing on principle and being consistent in opposition to setting aside election results simply because the Constitution's ridiculous rules say they can if they really want to. Giving this seat to Hart will accomplish nothing broader, at a moment when American democracy itself remains in mortal peril.
But even from a standpoint of pure, unadulterated self-interest, the case for tossing Miller-Meeks out of Congress is pretty thin. Iowa's second congressional district is surely at or near the top of Democrats' pickup list for 2022, and the perception that Hart won her seat illegitimately could doom her re-election campaign anyway. At that point, what has really been won, other than 20 months of a House seat that the party doesn't need anyway?
On issues of voting and democracy, Democrats currently occupy the moral high ground. If they want to hold off the coming GOP assault on voting and democracy, which may be fought at least partly in the sphere of public opinion, they'll need to keep it. And using raw partisan power to throw Mariannette Miller-Meeks out of Congress and replace her with Rita Hart would be a dreadful, indefensible way to start the fight.