The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats care about democracy — until they need to undo a GOP win

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) greets then-Iowa congressional candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks during a campaign stop in Newton, Iowa, on Nov. 3, 2014. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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House Democrats are seriously considering unseating Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an Iowa Republican, and replacing her with the woman she defeated in November, state Sen. Rita Hart. That power play would show Democrats to be exactly what many Republicans think they are: a party devoted more to holding power than protecting democracy.

Miller-Meeks won her seat by a mere six votes last November. Hart called for a recount after unofficial results showed her behind by 47 votes, and the 24 counties in the district assembled the legally mandated bipartisan boards to oversee the effort. That count cut into the Republican’s lead but did not overturn it. The Iowa Board of Canvass unanimously certified her election on Nov. 30, and Miller-Meeks was sworn in as a member of Congress on Jan. 3.

This should have been the end of it. As Democrats kept reminding us during the stupid and futile efforts by former president Donald Trump to overturn his election defeat, democracy’s legal procedures protect all Americans against politicians using their power to overturn election results they don’t like. Those procedures showed Miller-Meeks won, and Hart had bypassed her ability to appeal the Canvass Board’s decision in Iowa state court, ending her ability to contest the election before a neutral judge. Case closed, right?

Wrong. Hart has appealed to the House itself, controlled by her own party, and asked it to conduct its own investigation into the race. She contends that the recount boards improperly excluded 22 ballots that would have given her the victory had they been counted. Notwithstanding the fact that she could have made those claims before an Iowa court, she chose to invoke the rarely used Federal Contested Elections Act to press them before her own party. The House Administration Committee voted last week on partisan lines to consider Hart’s challenge and launch its own investigation.

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Republicans are rightly afraid this will lead to Democrats taking the seat away from Miller-Meeks and giving it to Hart. They cite the legendary example of the 1985 recount over Indiana’s 8th Congressional District. In that race, Republican Richard McIntyre was certified as the winner by 34 votes, but his Democratic opponent, Frank McCloskey, challenged the result before the House. Democrats refused to swear McIntyre in and replaced him with McCloskey after a three-member board — two Democrats and one Republican — “found” that McCloskey had won. The House then voted to back the board’s decision on a largely partisan vote, although the move was so egregious that 10 Democrats joined every Republican to vote against it.

Republicans similarly felt that Democrats stole a legitimate victory in the 2004 Washington gubernatorial race, when Republican Dino Rossi was ahead of Democrat Christine Gregoire by 261 votes in unofficial but final results. An automatic machine recount found Rossi was still ahead by 42 votes. Democrats then paid for a hand recount, and went to court to force election officials to count ballots that had been previously rejected. This included more than 500 absentee ballots that were discovered in King County, the state’s Democratic bastion, weeks after the election. This recount put Gregoire ahead. She took office, but nearly 20 years later, state Republicans still believe they were robbed.

The hypocrisy on display in the Iowa case is stunning. Just two months ago, Democrats thundered that the call from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for a commission to look into the 2020 presidential election was seditious. Cruz’s proposal would have enabled Republican-controlled state legislatures to “change in their vote” based on the commission’s findings. Since Republicans control the legislature in every close state the Trump campaign was contesting, this was an open invitation for one party to overturn the election results based on its perceived self-interest. How is what the House Democrats are considering any different?

Continuing down this path would turn the partisan tensions in this country up to 11. Republican media would surely make the issue the object of their ire for months, noting in every opportunity how inconsistent such an act would be with Democratic rhetoric in the post-election ruckus. Such an argument would not be contained to the rightward elements of the media, either. The House has not unseated a sworn-in member due to an election challenge since 1938. Doing it now, and in the wake of the tumultuous 2020 election, would be national news and a big 2022 election issue.

Republicans can take heart from that earlier example, though. The Republican unseated by the Democratic majority then clearly won election in the 1938 midterms, while the GOP gained 81 House seats. If Democrats rob Miller-Meeks today, past may be prologue.

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