The U.S. House Committee on Elections determined fraud took place in a Rhode Island congressional race 135 years ago and ordered a new election

Presumptive Democratic nominee Dan McCready will have a second chance to win a congressional seat to the 116th Congress, although it won’t be against 2018 GOP nominee Mark Harris who bowed out of running in the May 2019 special primary after the State Board of Elections unanimously decided to order a new election due to evidence of election fraud. [The special election will be held on September 10, 2019].

Over the last two centuries, there have been multiple ‘redo’ elections in races for the nation’s lower legislative chamber. And there have been many examples of election fraud.

In most instances – normally in very closely-decided elections – the losing candidate alleging fraud or other irregularities launches a formal contest in the U.S. House of Representatives. [That did not take place in this instance as neither McCready or Harris received a certificate of election and no candidate was seated].

Many members were successful in their contests and eventually seated, although a majority were not.

Rarely, however, was a new election called to settle the dispute from a fraud-tainted contest.

But in one contest from Rhode Island over 130 years ago, it was.

In the late 19th Century, there were several U.S. House contests in Rhode Island for which the state general assembly called for a new election.

Most of these specials were called due to the fact that neither candidate received a majority of the vote as required by law. [Note: This law ended in 1893 when voters approved a constitutional amendment stating “In all elections held by the people for state, city, town, ward or district officers, the person or candidate receiving the largest number of votes cast shall be declared elected.”].

These redos were not runoffs per se as frequently seen in the South, because more than the Top 2 candidates from the initial election were allowed to participate in the subsequent redo.

For example, in the following races, Prohibition nominees were on the ballot in the general and do-over elections:

  • 1886 (RI-02): Democrat Charles Bradley (48.2 percent) vs. Republican Warren Arnold (43.1 percent). Bradley lost to Republican Warren Arnold in the 1887 special.
  • 1890 (RI-02): Democrat Charles Page (48.5 percent) vs. Republican U.S. Representative Warren Arnold (48.1 percent). Arnold did not campaign for the 1891 special and Page won in a landslide.
  • 1892 (RI-01): Republican Melville Bull (49.4 percent) vs. Democratic U.S. Representative Oscar Lapham (49.1 percent). Lapham prevailed in the 1893 special.
  • 1892 (RI-02): Republican Adin Capron (49.7 percent) vs. Democratic U.S. Representative Charles Page (45.3 percent). Page won the 1893 special.

In one instance, however, evidence was provided to show that a seated Rhode Island U.S. Representative procured some votes via bribery and intimidation.

In November’s 1884 general election for the state’s 2nd CD seat, former Republican state legislator William Pirce was initially certified the winner against Democratic state Senator Charles Page with 50.2 percent of the vote, clearing the majority threshold by just 16 votes.

Page received 38.9 percent with Prohibition nominee Alfred Chadsey garnering 9.7 percent and votes for other minor candidates and write-in votes totaling 1.2 percent.

Pirce was therefore seated for the 49th Congress in March 1885 and Page contested the election to the U.S. House.

Upon closer inspection of the results by the U.S. House Committee on Elections, it was determined that there was a summation error in the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s electoral tabulation of towns and voting districts. As a result, Pirce’s 16-vote majority was overcounted and was in fact only three votes.

The Committee also received sworn testimony from multiple members of the district that they were paid (usually $2 to $3) to vote for Pirce.

Testimony from one resident – Warwick painter Alfred Johnson, who belonged to the Democratic Party, was quite incriminating:

“I know that money was used to induce voters to vote for William A. Pirce, and also to pay voters for voting for said Pirce. I myself received three dollars for voting for William A. Pirce, but I don’t know by name the person who paid me the money. I know him simply by sight…He belonged to the Republican party and he was working in the interest of Mr. Pirce…This person that I have mentioned above came to me and asked if I had voted, and I told him I had not. He handed me a ticket which which was yellow in color, a Pirce ticket, and said, “Vote that, and I will see you later.” I voted it, and after the polls were closed I saw him on the street and he took me down to Atwood’s Hotel and gave me three dollars. He gave me those three dollars for voting for Mr. Pirce.”

As a result of all the evidence and testimony presented, the House Committee concluded in January 1887 that there was election fraud in this race.

However, they did not find enough evidence to suggest that Page would have been elected without the fraud taking place, as Page had lost by 11.2 points (1,751 votes).

As such, Page was not seated.

However, the Committee found enough evidence to suggest the fraud put into question Pirce winning a majority of the vote as required by Rhode Island law.

Pirce’s seat was therefore declared vacant on January 25, 1887.

The Committee wrote:

“While it is likely that voters under the domination of Republican employers were deterred from voting for Mr. Page, there was no evidence before the committee defining the measure of this influence, or estimating its effect. Still, it is not improbable that it was larger in extent than the apparent majority of the sitting member. The committee therefore recommend the adoption of the following resolution: Resolved, That William A. Pirce was not elected a member of the House of Representatives of the Forty-ninth Congress, from the Second Congressional District of Rhode Island, and that the seat be declared vacant.”

The contestant, Charles Page was then elected in the subsequent February 1887 special election and finally seated to serve the remaining 10 days of the 49th Congress. Page unsuccessfully sued the federal government to collect back pay for the nearly two-year period during which Pirce had held the seat.

Page would later win two more terms – to the 52nd (1891-1893) and 53rd (1893-1895) Congresses.

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  1. John Chessant on March 18, 2019 at 5:28 pm

    Related are four instances of election “irregularities” in the U.S. Senate in the 1920s.

    In 1918, former U.S. navy secretary Truman H. Newberry (R-Mich.) appeared to narrowly defeat famed automobile manufacturer Henry Ford (D-Mich.) in the U.S. Senate election in Michigan. However, Ford alleged that Newberry’s excessive campaign spending violated both state law and the Federal Corrupt Practices Act. The matter was taken up in the Senate elections committee. Meanwhile, Newberry and campaign associates were indicted and then convicted by the U.S. Department of Justice on campaign finance violations. However, Newberry appealed to the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in a 5–4 decision, and shortly afterwards, the Senate voted (46 to 41) that Newberry was legally elected. But Ford did not accept the decision and threatened new challenges. After the Democrats gained seven Senate seats in the 1922 midterms, Newberry resigned on November 18, 1922, fearing that another Senate vote on his status would likely not be in his favor, and Gov. Alexander J. Groesbeck (R-Mich.) appointed Detroit mayor (and early Ford Motor Company investor) James J. Couzens to fill the vacancy, four years (!) after the original 1918 election.

    In the U.S. Senate election in Pennsylvania in 1926, Philadelphia political machine boss (and seven-term Rep.) William S. Vare (R-Pa.) defeated incumbent Sen. George W. Pepper (R-Pa.) and Gov. (and former U.S. forest service chief) Gifford Pinchot (R-Pa.) in the Republican primary. Vare then appeared to handily defeat former U.S. labor secretary (and former Rep.) William B. Wilson (D-Pa.) in the general election. However, Wilson alleged fraudulent voter registrations and voter intimidation in Philadelphia, and Pinchot (as governor) refused to certify Vare’s victory. After three years of wrangling in a Senate elections “special committee” (which had already begun investigating Vare’s primary victory in May 1926, which featured excessive campaign spending), the Senate voted on December 6, 1929, to seat neither Vare (58 to 22) nor Wilson (66 to 15). Pennsylvania’s new governor, John S. Fisher (R-Pa.), appointed textile manufacturer Joseph R. Grundy (R-Pa.) to fill the vacancy until U.S. labor secretary James J. Davis (R-Pa.) won a 1930 special election for the remainder of the term.

    Also in 1926, the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Illinois saw former Rep. Frank L. Smith (R-Ill.) defeat incumbent Sen. William B. McKinley (R-Ill.) (no relation to the former president of the same name). However, allegations that Smith accepted campaign donations from corporations over which he had oversight in his role as chair of the Illinois commerce commission, in addition to allegations of excessive campaign spending by Smith, were referred to the already-impaneled Senate elections special committee which was investigating the Pennsylvania primary that year. While the committee was holding hearings into the Illinois primary in Chicago, Smith won the general election with a margin of three points, in spite of requests from state party leaders that he step aside. Then, McKinley died in December 1926, three months before his term was to expire, and Gov. Len Small (R-Ill.) appointed Smith to take the seat early. The Senate refused to seat him until the elections committee made a recommendation, and Smith returned to Illinois to recover for an illness, so the matter was put on hold until the beginning of the new Congress. The committee eventually found the allegations credible and recommended that Smith not be seated, while Smith argued (as did Vare) that the Senate could not take action against Smith until Smith was seated. On January 19, 1928, the Senate voted (61 to 23) not to seat Smith, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1929 that the Senate can in fact deny a seat to a senator-elect, contrary to Smith’s and Vare’s contention. Smith resigned his claim to the seat on February 9, 1928, setting up a 1928 special election which was won by former state senator Otis Glenn (R-Ill.) over future Chicago mayor Anton Cermak (D-Ill.) (who was famously shot and killed in 1933 amidst an assassination attempt on president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt).

    In perhaps the strangest case of all, incumbent Sen. Smith W. Brookhart (R-Ia.) was ousted from the Senate in April 1926. A progressive populist, Brookhart had first been elected in a 1922 special election, and won a first full term in the 1924 election over Daniel F. Steck (D-Ia.) by a narrow margin of 754 votes. Steck challenged the election in the Senate elections committee, with help from the Iowa Republican Party, with which Brookhart was on bad terms due to his support for Sen. Robert La Follette (P-Wis.) over Calvin Coolidge in the 1924 presidential election. On April 12, 1926 (seventeen months after the 1924 election), the Senate voted (45 to 41) to replace Brookhart with Steck. Brookhart promptly mounted a successful primary challenge against Iowa’s other senator, three-term incumbent Sen. Albert B. Cummins (R-Ia.), and served a full term from 1927 to 1933. He lost re-nomination in 1932.

    The only other case of the Senate declaring a seat vacant appears to be that of the notoriously-close 1974 U.S. Senate election in New Hampshire between former state insurance commissioner John A. Durkin (D-N.H.) and five-term Rep. Louis C. Wyman (R-N.H.). Wyman appeared to defeat Durkin by just two votes, and Gov. Meldrim Thomson (R-N.H.) appointed Wyman to the seat following the resignation of retiring Sen. Norris H. Cotton (R-N.H.) to give him a seniority advantage. Wyman served for three days (from December 31, 1974, to January 3, 1975), but the Senate refused to seat him for the new Congress. After seven months of deliberations and ballot examinations, the Senate could not reach an agreement before the August recess. Wyman thus suggested that a new election be held, and Durkin agreed. On August 8, 1975, the Senate voted (71 to 21) to declare the seat vacant (prompting Thomson to appoint Cotton back to the seat until the special election). The special election on September 16, 1975, saw increased turnout from the 1974 election, and Durkin defeated Wyman by a ten-point margin. Wyman remains the shortest-serving Senator in U.S. history, although future Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (R-Ohio), who had already served a full term in the Senate from 1849 to 1855, served again for two days from March 4 to March 6, 1861, when he resigned to become President Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary.

    • Dr Eric Ostermeier on March 26, 2019 at 9:20 am

      Great summaries of these elections! [I was not too familiar w/the MI example]. Much appreciated.

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