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The Election Case of Isaac Stephenson of Wisconsin (1912)

Electoral misconduct; bribery and corruption.

Request for investigation: June 30, 1911
Referred to committee: June 30, 1911
Committee report: Feb. 12, 1912
Senate vote: Mar. 27, 1912

Result: Retained seat

Isaac Stephenson, a successful Wisconsin businessman, plunged into Republican politics soon after the party's 1854 formation in the Dairy State. He served in a variety of local offices, and in 1883 Wisconsin voters sent him to the United States House of Representations, where he remained for three terms. In May 1907 Stephenson was elected to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, and in 1909 he was reelected to the full term beginning on March 4, 1909.

Statement of the Case
On March 15, 1909, Isaac Stephenson presented his credentials for the new term and was seated without objection. More than two years later, on June 30, 1911, the Wisconsin legislature notified the U.S. Senate that it considered Stephenson's claim to the seat invalid, because a state investigation into the 1909 election had found evidence of bribery and corruption by Stephenson both in state's direct primary in 1908 and in his 1909 election by legislature. State investigators reported, for example, that Stephenson's primary campaign expenditures exceeded $107,000. In the years before passage of the Seventeenth Amendment providing for direct election of senators, a number of states adopted the system of holding a popular primary to enable voters to express their preference for U.S. senator. Although the results of such primaries were not legally binding, in practice state legislators were inclined to follow the popular mandate when they formally elected a senator.

The Senate referred the Wisconsin communication to the Committee on Privileges and Elections that same day, and on August 15 the Senate authorized the committee to investigate Stephenson's campaign.

Response of the Senate
On October 2, 1911, a subcommittee began hearings in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that lasted for twenty-five days and amassed over two thousand pages of printed testimony. One hundred twenty-four witnesses, often with flippancy and boldness, described receiving and spending campaign funds, destroying financial records, and removing campaign correspondence to a secret location outside the state.

On February 12, 1912, a divided committee reported to the Senate. The majority report sustained Stephenson's right to his seat. It dismissed as insignificant several technicalities in the election procedures of the Wisconsin legislature, none of which had substantive bearing on the outcome of the election. It also preferred not to review activities during the direct primary, because under the U.S. Constitution such state primaries were "no part of an election of a United States senator." Regarding the conduct of Stephenson himself, the report defended his campaign expenditures, such as the purchase of newspaper advertising, payment of poll workers and other campaign aides, and the maintenance of a headquarters in a local hotel, as acceptable campaign tactics rather than as evidence of corrupt practices. The committee mildly rebuked the senator for failing to require his associates to keep adequate records and for the lavish expenditure of money, but the report concluded that other candidates who spent less did so because of a lack of funds rather than a higher degree of morality. The committee noted that in 1911 the Federal Corrupt Practices Act had limited to $10,000 the amount a Senate candidate could spend on his campaign and Wisconsin had adopted a $7,500 limit, but neither law had been in effect at the time of Stephenson's election.

A minority report vehemently disagreed with these points. Although the direct primary had no legal force in the election of senators, the report noted that many legislators felt morally bound to vote for the individual who won the primary. Thus, if success in the primary was achieved by corrupt means, the actual election by the legislature would also have been affected. Mindful of a rising public outcry against expensive campaigns, the report's authors emphasized the undisputed testimony that seventy agents, charged to distribute funds on Stephenson's behalf, openly toured the state for that purpose, and Stephenson himself had ordered $2,500 given to a local game warden. Based on such uncontroverted evidence, the minority report told the Senate that corruption was used in the primary, which "directly contributed to destroy the purity and freedom of the election," and concluded that Stephenson's election was invalid.

Long and emotional floor debates followed the distribution of the reports, as supporters and opponents of Stephenson read into the Congressional Record extensive excerpts from the testimony gathered by the committee. Stephenson's champion, George Sutherland (R-UT), made the distinction that it was possible to legitimately spend a great deal of money on a primary election, such as the $11,000 Stephenson had expended for postage. While senators might disapprove of such exorbitant expenditures, they were not in themselves evidence of corruption. He concluded by pleading that, at the age of eighty-three, Stephenson probably had only a short time left to live and should be permitted to finish his life with his honor intact. "Yet a few more days and he must pass on, leaving nothing of permanent value behind him, unless it be the record of an honored and honorable name." Unmoved by these entreaties, opponents like Miles Poindexter (R-WA) denounced the majority report. Poindexter told his colleagues that, since Stephenson supplied the money that was spent, common sense made it obvious that he must have known about the flagrant transactions.

At the close of the debate, Francis Newlands (D-NV) offered a line of reasoning that may have assisted many in their voting decision when he condemned Stephenson's campaign practices but pointed out that, since the Wisconsin election, public opinion had grown much stronger against activities prohibited by recent laws that had not been illegal in 1908. He therefore added, "I am unwilling to judge the acts of four years ago either by the political or the moral standards of today." When on March 27, 1912, the Senate voted 40 to 34 that Stephenson should retain his seat, spectators in the gallery burst into enthusiastic applause, for which they were promptly chided by the presiding officer.

This case, like that of William Lorimer, was being considered by the Senate at a time when public sentiment was running high against the use of money and questionable practices during state legislatures' election of senators and while Congress was debating the Seventeenth Amendment, which became law in 1913. Although Stephenson's advanced age helped to save him from losing the seat, he did not expire quite as promptly as George Sutherland had predicted. Stephenson served in the Senate until 1915 and lived in retirement for another three years before his death in 1918.


Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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