The contested election in Iowa.

Democrats are gearing up for a battle.
Isaac Saul Mar 23, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone forwarded you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

We have a full-bodied edition of Tangle today: The fight over an Iowa House seat, a question about media bias, my favorite Tangle podcast yet, a correction a reader made to Tangle and a correction I made to The Wall Street Journal, an update on yesterday’s numbers section, and (finally!) a nuanced piece on coronavirus and Florida. I also want to give a warm welcome to all our new subscribers who joined yesterday after we launched our rewards program. Welcome!

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA) chats with voters in Iowa, where she recently won a House race. (Photo:


Yesterday, I referred to Jody Hice as a “she.” Jody is a “he.” This was, funny enough, news to me: I’ve been reading quite a bit about Hice and I somehow assumed he was a woman this entire time. It was, as it happens, also a mistake that had been corrected. A few sections that were cleanly edited yesterday were left in a shared Google doc with my editors and never got copy and pasted back into the newsletter, so you all had the torturous experience of reading some of my unedited writing in yesterday’s newsletter. My apologies.

Shoutout to Philip from Washington D.C., who was the first to notice this correction.

This is the 36th Tangle corrections in its 82-week existence and the first since March 18th. I track corrections, and place them at the top of the newsletter, in an effort to maximize my transparency with readers.


Speaking of corrections… Last week, when covering the House gun control bill, I noted that both The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Examiner appeared to erroneously report that the bill would prevent transfers between family members, friends, and loans for someone in danger. So I did something I almost never do: I filed two correction requests. The Washington Examiner immediately updated their op-ed. This morning, I got an email from a Wall Street Journal reporter to let me know they had corrected their piece, too. I promised I’d update you, so there it is. Here is the WSJ correction:

New podcast.

Last week, I sat down with former CIA operative Jonna Mendez, AKA “The Master of Disguise.” Mendez spent her career in the Office of Technical Services at the CIA, which is staffed by engineers, chemists, physicists, makeup artists and counterfeiters. Essentially: it’s the part of the CIA you probably imagine when you think of a James Bond movie. She’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever gotten to chat with, and this was (fortunately for me) the second time I’ve gotten to interview her. You may also recognize her name because her late husband, Tony Mendez, was the agent responsible for extracting U.S. diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis in a story that’s depicted in the Academy Award-winning film Argo.

Listen to the podcast!

Quick hits.

  1. At least 10 people were killed, including the first police officer to arrive on the scene, after a lone shooter opened fire inside a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket. (The Associated Press)
  2. The United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Canada announced sanctions against Chinese officials for human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims. (Axios)
  3. The Biden administration is putting together a $3 trillion infrastructure and economic plan focused on roads, bridges and climate change initiatives. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  4. U.S. health officials released an unusual advisory that called into question the results of the AstraZeneca vaccine trial, writing that the encouraging results may have been “based on outdated and incomplete information.” (The New York Times)
  5. Local officials in Evanston, Illinois, became the first U.S. city to make reparations available to its Black residents for past discrimination in housing and lingering effects of slavery. (The Associated Press)

What D.C. is talking about.

The Iowa House election. Yesterday, Iowa Democrat Rita Hart — who lost her race to freshman Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks by just six votes — officially filed a challenge to the results of the election with the House Administration Committee.

Hart initially lost her race to Miller-Meeks by 287 votes. Then a final tally of mail-in votes was counted, and Miller-Meeks’ margin shrank to 47 votes. Then, a recount cut the lead down to six. The final count ended up being 196,964 to 196,958, the closest federal election of 2020. The race was certified by the bipartisan Iowa State Board of Canvassers.

Now, though, Hart is challenging 22 ballots in total: “Of these wrongfully excluded 22 ballots, the evidence establishes that 18 were cast for Contestant Hart, three were cast for Contestee Miller-Meeks, and one did not record a vote for either candidate,” Hart told the committee. “Once those ballots are included in the final tally, Contestant Hart would have 196,976 votes and Contestee Miller-Meeks would have 196,967 votes, giving Contestant Hart a lead of nine votes.”

The challenge brings renewed focus to an interesting quirk of U.S. election law: the House challenge. Because the Constitution says that the House of Representatives “shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members,” both parties have used their majority powers to overturn elections since 1792 — and most routinely between 1875 and 1903.

In 1969, the Federal Contested Elections Act laid out a new procedure for such challenges. The House has reviewed about 110 elections since 1933. All but three petitioners were rejected, and the process is generally viewed unfavorably as it creates a scenario where the judges — in this case, the Democratic majority — have a vested interest in the outcome and the unchecked power to control that outcome.

The House Administration Committee, which oversees elections, has already voted along strict party lines to hear the case. The committee can now investigate and issue a report that suggests who should hold the House seat, and since Democrats control the House with a 219-211 majority, they could conceivably vote to seat Hart over Miller-Meeks.

What the right is saying.

The right says it is a blatant power grab and House Democrats are doing exactly what they’ve said is unacceptable for months: contesting and undermining a certified election.

In The Washington Post, Henry Olsen said “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.

“The hypocrisy on display in the Iowa case is stunning,” he said. “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?

In The Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove highlighted the historical practice of the House overturning close elections, which has always led to major backlash.

Ms. Hart is “pinning her hopes on 11 ballots that weren’t discovered before certification that would cut the GOP margin to two if counted and 11 ballots she claims are from supporters that were wrongly excluded. The committee is reviewing the challenge,” Rove wrote. “Mrs. Pelosi could widen her margin by ousting a Republican congresswoman and installing Ms. Hart. But if she does, she’d divide the House even more bitterly. There will be payback, one way or another. We’ll soon see how desperate the speaker is.”

In December, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) asked if Democrats will “steal a Congressional House seat.”

“In Iowa’s 2nd District, every legal vote was counted and we know this because the votes were counted and recounted using a timely, transparent, and bipartisan process,” he wrote. “Bipartisan recount boards in all 24 counties — including a member appointed by the Miller-Meeks campaign, a member appointed by the Hart campaign, and their agreed upon third member — conducted the recount. Following the recount, Iowa’s bipartisan State Canvassing Board voted unanimously to declare Rep.-elect Dr. Miller-Meeks the winner on Nov. 30.

“Under Iowa law, if a candidate disagreed with the state’s certification, they could still challenge this decision in Iowa courts,” he added. “In court, the candidate needs to prove there are votes that have not been counted that should have been. However, Hart chose to forgo this step and instead, announced on Dec. 2 that she would move to file a federal contest where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats, instead of Iowans, would decide what votes are legal and which ones are not.”

What the left is saying.

The left is mostly criticizing the idea, though they are emphasizing that it’s a much more legitimate claim than the one Donald Trump made to overturn the presidential election.

The Washington Post editorial board said that for some Democrats and Republicans, the 2020 election is still not over.

“Though they have done far more damage, Republicans are not the only ones who should question whether their refusal to accept last year’s election results is good for the nation,” it wrote, citing Rita Hart’s challenge. “But House Democrats should keep their distance.

“Iowa’s bipartisan election process certified the results. Barring truly egregious errors, a partisan House majority should not reverse them. Democrats have the moral upper hand condemning Republican efforts to use legitimate means, such as election law changes and congressional objections, to undermine democracy. They should focus on expanding voter access and fighting gerrymandering and other pro-democracy reforms, not open themselves to charges of hypocrisy over a single House seat.”

The Charlotte Observer editorial board said Democrats are being hypocritical by pursuing this path to gain a House seat.

“Democrats say this is a valid, albeit rare, path for Hart. While the Constitution authorizes states to administer elections, each chamber of Congress gets the final say on the election and qualifications of its members,” the board said. “At a time when Americans’ trust in elections is tenuous, overturning a certified result would further feed the perception that either party will do whatever it can to maintain its grip on power. It also could encourage future majorities to look for reasons to reconsider election results they don’t like.

“Hart’s campaign got a recount and had an opportunity to have its arguments heard by state courts, but it didn’t make a December deadline required by law. Now it wants a friendlier audience. The House may be constitutionally empowered to question state certified results, but the threshold for doing so should be exceedingly high. This case, in this moment, doesn’t meet it.”

In The New Republic, Matt Ford said “The two election disputes are wildly different when it comes to procedure,” but wrote that “If Democrats oust a seated Republican lawmaker in favor of their own party’s candidate, they will be effectively supplanting a state’s certified and recounted election results with their own judgment. There are obvious differences between Hart’s efforts and the false and reality-warping claims that undergirded Trump’s attempt at clinging to power. Hart is trying to get ballots counted that she argues were erroneously excluded. Trump tried to throw out legitimate votes for no legitimate reason other than wanting to remain in office. The superficial similarities, however, are proving irresistible for Republicans to highlight.”

My take.

First, it should be stated clearly that this is nothing like the presidential election. House Republicans who objected to the results of the presidential race did it without presenting any evidence of fraud that could have conceivably changed the election result and without any avenue to actually change the outcome of the race. Their objections were purely a matter of politics — very ugly politics, at that — and were not connected to a reality where anything would or should have changed.

This race was decided by six votes out of nearly 400,000 cast and there is a legitimate legal avenue for the outcome to be overturned. It’s not just a different ballpark, it’s a different planet.

The election fraud claims around the presidential race were over-the-top and unprecedented, and many of the same Republicans who were pilloried for objecting to the results are now insisting Democrats are trying to steal an election themselves. It’s clear the hypocrisy goes both ways: Democrats hammered Republicans for challenging certified results, and Republicans contended certified results could be overturned. Now the roles are reversed though the stakes are different.

It’s a stain on our democracy all the same.

The idea that the House has control over this in the first place is beyond my comprehension. How could the jurors in a case have such a vested interest in the outcome and reasonably be relied on to make a ruling free of blatant, unchecked partisanship? Not only that, but the members deciding the case have no constitutional guardrails to act honorably. This process shouldn’t exist at all, but at the very least, the “jury” should be made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, with a draw deferring to the state’s ruling. I understand these conflicts are present in much of Congress’s actions, but this seems like a particularly egregious case.

Worse still for Democrats is the merits of the case. Iowa’s election board ruled unanimously; not a single dissenter appeared in the final tally of the case. Hart opted not to challenge the results then as she should have, and as anyone confident in the merits of their argument would have. While the former president ran a pressure campaign to change the results, at least his legal team took many of his claims to neutral arbitrators in court and lost there, which is how the system is supposed to work.

Hart has sat on these claims since November, didn’t attempt to challenge the results at the state level or through the courts, and is now taking it to the most partisan body she can find to get the outcome she wants. One could even argue that what Hart is doing is actually more dangerous, even if the stakes are lower, because it has an actual chance of working.

The last time the House unseated a sworn-in member was in 1938 and I don’t believe they are going to end that streak now. If they do, though, Democrats will lose the moral high ground on undermining elections and Republicans will rightly bludgeon them with their hypocrisy for the next four years. They’ve already lost some of that high ground by simply opting to hear the case in the first place. Hart should concede she lost and move on, and Democrats should move off the transparent power grab and instead spend their time reforming the system so this kind of challenge isn’t possible in the future.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I feel most news outlets are biased. They are either left or right. I try to balance both sides by seeking out opposing views. That's why I love this newsletter because it's exhausting trying to read through several biased stories to try and get the whole picture. My question is: Are news outlets objectively biased? Are there any news outlets that hire both progressive and conservative reporters? Are there Republicans at the NY Times? Are there Democrats at the Washington Times? I really feel a solution is to be balanced on hiring. The echo chambers create silos. I would like to see a place that understands that reasonable people can disagree.

— Anonymous, Phoenix, Arizona

Tangle: You’ve definitely found your home with Tangle. While news outlets may be biased, I don't think most of them are "working for one side" or the other.  The top news outlets in the world have the “best” reporters in the world. That’s why they work at those places — they are where reporters get the most money and the biggest followings.

But if you read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times coverage of the exact same event, it will look very different. That’s because the reporters at each outlet have different sources, different editing standards and, yes, different biases.

In 2013, The Washington Post reported on a study showing 7.1% of journalists were Republicans, 28.1% were Democrats, and 50.2% were “independent.” I think it’s very obvious from talking to people who work at institutions like The New York Times that the vast majority of the employees there hold liberal values. But that doesn’t cleanly equate to writers who are liberal writing favorably about liberals. A simple example: Do you think a liberal writer would be more charitable in their writing about a Democrat flip-flopping on raising the minimum wage, or less charitable? I think less.

I’ve written before that the media does not have a liberal bias, and I make the argument in three fundamental ways:

1) “The media” is made up of far more than newspapers now. Fox News has more power than any other single cable channel. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, decidedly conservative (on the opinion side), are two of the most read papers in the world. In talk radio, political magazines, YouTube, podcasts and Facebook, conservatives dominate.

2) Being biased doesn’t mean favorable coverage. Reporters who are Democrats can be the biggest critics of Democrats because they have the closest eye on them, know their history the best, and are most emotionally invested there. The New York Times was criticized for being in the tank for Hillary in 2016, yet it was The Times that broke the email scandal story which had such a significant role in sinking her campaign.

3) Newspaper editorial boards are — today — decidedly liberal. But digital news outlets have thrived on the right. From Breitbart to The Daily Caller to The Washington Examiner, the Internet has very much evened the scales.

I don’t know of any news outlets that have hiring standards around Republicans and Democrats, and don’t think such a provision would be wise (I do not support hiring people based on their politics). I think we are all simply trapped in our biases and there’s no way out, other than to recognize and admit them at the outset. Which is why I created Tangle and this format — which I genuinely believe is the solution.

Want to ask a question? Reply to this email and write in or simply fill out this form.

A story that matters.

We’ve been writing about COVID-19’s state-by-state outcomes, and have repeatedly focused on Florida. This morning, The Atlantic’s Derek Thomspon — who is my favorite pandemic reporter — published a masterful piece about Florida, its confounding and contradictory successes and losses, and how it may not actually be “winning” the pandemic so much as just running right in the middle of the outcome ladder. It’s really hard to find nuanced, fair, holistic reporting on what is now a politically charged issue — but Derek did it. And I now feel like I have a better understanding of Florida’s handling of the pandemic than I did before. (The Atlantic)


In yesterday’s numbers section, I highlighted a fascinating survey from Franklin Templeton-Gallup about Americans misunderstanding COVID-19 risks. To be precise, I copied Franklin Templeton-Gallup’s language exactly, but quite a few people found their language confusing and asked for clarification. Further muddying the waters, a link I included pointed to a July survey instead of more recent surveys they’ve done showing similar results. So I’m going to explain it again:

The chances someone with COVID-19 must be hospitalized are estimated at about 1% to 5%. When asked, “What are the chances somebody with Covid must be hospitalized?”, only 10% of Democrats picked 1% to 5%. But 41% of Democrats said the chances somebody with Covid must be hospitalized were “50% and up.”

Republicans similarly over-estimated the risk, though to a significantly lesser degree. 26% of Republicans correctly chose 1% to 5% as the risk for being hospitalized with COVID-19 while 28% of Republicans chose “50% and up.”

In the July survey, Americans as a whole were asked what percentage of all COVID-19 deaths occurred in adults aged 55 and older. Respondents, on average, guessed that a little more than half of all covid deaths occurred in people aged 55 and older. The real answer was 92%. Similarly, 80% of all COVID-19 deaths are among people aged 65 and older, but Americans believed that only 39.3% of all COVID-19 deaths occurred in people aged 65 and older.

You can read this New York Times story about “partisan error” in understanding coronavirus. Together, the data indicate that Americans largely over-estimate the risk of COVID-19, sometimes by as much as a factor of 50.

Don’t forget.

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Have a nice day.

Here’s something you won’t believe even after I tell you: In the 2021 World Happiness Report, self-satisfaction across 95 countries on average remained steady in 2020 compared to 2019. Despite social upheaval and the pandemic, the United States saw the same trend, and results even tracked the authors of the report who conduct it annually. “I don’t want to leave an impression that all was well, because it’s not,” one of the report’s editors, Jeffrey Sachs, said. But data suggests “people have not thrown up their hands about their lives.” The report is good news regarding global resilience, experts said. (The Washington Post)


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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