One congressional committee is rejecting partisanship to protect state votes

One congressional committee is rejecting partisanship to protect state votes
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Jan. 6, 2021, was a very bad day for our nation. A mob gathered on Capitol Hill. Some of them erected gallows. Others smashed onlooking journalists’ cameras and equipment. Still, others flew Confederate battle flags, the banner of mid-19th century southern insurrectionists. Then the crowd assaulted police officers and broke through the doors and windows of the Capitol. 

It was an ugly episode and a shocking one that drew gasps from around the globe. The world’s longest-standing democratic republic had experienced a disruption in the peaceful transition of power. 

Beyond the bloodshed, trauma to legislators and staff and damage to the ornate complex, the riot of Jan. 6 violated a constitutional and democratic norm. Our Constitution and governing traditions demand that Congress respect the states’ determination of who won their elections. This norm is central to our federal system, wherein we elect our chief executive and legislators through state-run elections. 

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Fortunately, that day the norm of respecting states’ election results was held. We all saw Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence says he'll 'evaluate' any requests from Jan. 6 panel Harris sets record for most tiebreaking votes in recent history The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Debt limit maneuvers; Biden warns Putin MORE, who presided over the joint session, resist the calls to refuse to count some of the slates that went for Biden. Enough legislators refused to back Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzInstagram chief gets bipartisan grilling over harm to teens McConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal Democrats seek to avoid internal disputes over Russia and China MORE (R-Texas), Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyProvision requiring women to register for draft stripped from defense bill Bob Dole: heroic, prickly and effective To counter China, the Senate must confirm US ambassadors MORE (R-Mo.) and myriad GOP legislators in their mephistophelian machinations.

Less noticed is that Congress shored up the democratic norm of deference to states’ election determinations a few months later. When asked to overturn a disputed election in Iowa, the House Committee on Administration refused to do so.

In Iowa’s 2nd congressional district, Democrat Rita Hart lost to Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks. The initial vote tabulation showed Miller-Meeks had defeated Hart by 282 votes out of nearly 400,000 cast on November 3, 2020. After the outstanding mail-in ballots were counted, the lead shrank to 47. A subsequent recount found Miller-Meeks had won by a mere 6 votes, and Hart alleged that 22 voters — most of whom who supported her — had their ballots thrown out.

In December 2020, Hart announced she would appeal her defeat to the committee under the Federal Contested Elections Act, and filed her complaint with the Committee on House Administration (CHA). 

With Democrats holding a thin majority (222 to 213) in the chamber, and six of nine seats on the CHA, one might have expected quick party-line votes that handed the seat to Hart. These fears were not baseless. In 1985, the Democratic majority refused to seat a Republican who was the certified victor in Indiana’s eighth district and ultimately awarded the seat to the Democrat.

Happily, history did not repeat itself. The committee did not vote to overturn the election, nor did it even report the matter to the House as a whole for consideration. It respected Iowa’s determination. Why it did so is not difficult to discern.

Very quickly, Rep. Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisDavis passes on bid for governor in Illinois, running for reelection to House One congressional committee is rejecting partisanship to protect state votes Capitol Police dominate lawmakers in Congressional Football Game MORE (R-Ill.), CHA’s ranking member, saw that Hart’s case was weak and loudly and publicly made that point. Iowa has rigorous election procedures and a bipartisan election board certified Miller-Meeks as the winner. Hart could have taken her case to the state’s nonpartisan court, but instead asked congressional Democrats to step in.

For Chair Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenLofgren: Many Jan. 6 panel witnesses are former Trump officials One congressional committee is rejecting partisanship to protect state votes Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — China's president to video in for climate confab MORE (D-Calif.) and House Democrats as a whole, the political optics of interceding in Hart’s case were awful. Since Jan. 6, Democrats had been hammering the GOP for its support of the efforts to throw out the presidential electoral slates of Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Moreover, the House has a long tradition of respecting states’ election determinations. Only three times in more than 100 filed complaints, including Indiana’s aforementioned bloody eighth, had the chamber seated the loser. Booting the seated Miller-Meeks also would have enraged Iowa voters — which was the last thing that Rep. Cindy AxneCindy AxneHouse passes bill to strengthen shipping supply chain On The Money — Congress races to keep the lights on House Democrats call on leaders to pass supply chain legislation MORE (D) needed after her slim November 2020 victory. Democrats in swing districts wanted no part of any of this and publicly voiced their apprehensions in March.

Hart withdrew her complaint on March 31 in recognition the CHA would not indulge her request.

For good measure, two months later CHA dismissed a complaint from a Republican candidate who had lost an Illinois election. As in Iowa, the election had been state-certified, and Congress had no business interceding. 

Jan. 6 stress-tested our constitutional order: The Committee on House Administration has helped repair some of the damage. Here is to hoping they and other legislators take additional steps to ensure we never again see rioters and rogue politicians trying to throw out states’ election results.

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the coeditor of "Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform(University of Chicago Press, 2020).