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Apr 27, 2009 1:22 pm

Senate Contested Elections

In light of the seemingly endless Coleman-Franken battle in Minnesota (the Supreme Court announced last week it wouldn’t hear oral arguments on former Sen. Coleman’s appeal until June 1), U.S. Senate Historical Office has put together a most useful page listing the contested Senate elections in U.S. history.

The basics: since the advent of popular elections, there have been 26 contested Senate elections—although only four have occurred in the last half-century. One of these four is sui generis: the 1974 New Hampshire race between John Durkin and Louis Wyman. The state of New Hampshire reported two results (one showing Durkin winning by 10 votes, the other showing Wyman winning by 2); and, although the pro-Wyman tally was procedurally dubious, the Senate declined to seat Durkin. The seat remained vacant until Sept. 1975, when Durkin easily won a special election.

The Coleman-Franken election, however, stands alone in post-1946 Senate elections in the Senate not seating the winner of the election as the loser pursues his election contest. (Franken led Coleman by 225 votes after the recount; his margin increased to 312 votes after the election contest trial.) This is due in part to a peculiar Minnesota law that denies an election certificate until after all state judicial action, rather than, as in most states, granting a certificate at the end of a canvassing or recount process but before the filing of an election contest. But the delay is also due to the increasingly partisan nature of the Senate. As recently as the mid-1990s, Republicans were willing to seat Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu without prejudice as her GOP challenger pursued an election contest—just as, in the mid-1970s, Democrats were willing to seat Oklahoma senator Henry Bellmon as his Democratic challenger pursued an election contest.

Two other disputed elections highlight even more the highly unusual nature of the Franken non-seating. In the 1970 Indiana Senate race between Democrat Vance Hartke and Republican Richard Roudebush, Hartke (who led after the votes were counted) was provisionally seated—despite the Supreme Court taking the highly unusual step of considering Roudebush’s appeal. (The court ultimately decided for Hartke.) The precedent: federal court involvement doesn’t bar the seating of a senator. And in the 1924 Iowa race between insurgent Republican Smith Brookhart and Democrat Daniel Steck, the Senate unseated Brookhart more than a year into his term after a (procedurally dubious) recount showed that, contrary to the provisional count, Steck had received more votes.

The Historical Office listing also profiles two disputed elections from the 1920s—the Frank Smith race in Illinois and the William Vare race in Pennsylvania. Both illustrated the proper road map that the Senate should follow when serious allegations of fraud in the election or selection of a senator emerge—a road map that the Senate, unfortunately, cast aside earlier this year, when it seated Roland Burris without a Rules Committee investigation.

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