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One congressional committee is rejecting partisanship to protect state votes

The House chamber
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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. 

Fortunately, that day the norm of respecting states’ election results was held. We all saw Vice President Mike Pence, 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 Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (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 Davis (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 Lofgren (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 Axne (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).

Tags Cindy Axne Democratic Caucus of the United States House of Representatives Josh Hawley Legislatures Mariannette Miller-Meeks Mike Pence Rita Hart Rodney Davis Ted Cruz Voting Result Zoe Lofgren

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