Skip Content
U.S. Flag

The Election Case of William E. Chilton of West Virgina v. Howard Sutherland of West Virginia (1918)

Howard Sutherland

Campaign financing.

Request for investigation: Mar. 14, 1917
Referred to committee: Mar. 14, 1917
Committee report: June 26, 1918
Senate vote: June 29, 1918

Result: Sutherland retained seat

In 1916 U.S. Senator William E. Chilton (Democrat) and U.S. Representative Howard Sutherland (Republican) squared off for a closely contested Senate race in West Virginia. Each commanded impressive business and political contacts through the state as well as a record of solid public service. Chilton, as the incumbent seeking his second Senate term, appeared to have the advantage, but the final count gave the victory to the Republican challenger Sutherland by slightly more than five thousand votes.

Statement of the Case
On March 5, 1917, Howard Sutherland was seated in the Senate without objection. A week later, however, on March 14, Furnifold Simmons (Democrat-NC) presented a petition from his defeated party colleague, Chilton, requesting an investigation into the West Virginia election. Chilton charged that Sutherland's campaign expenditures in the primary election exceeded the limit set by West Virginia law and that the registration rolls included the names of thousands of nonresidents and deceased persons, whose names were used in repeat voting for Republican candidates. The Senate referred the petition to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.

Response of the Senate
In December 1917, while the committee was still reviewing the case, Chilton wrote to equivocate his charge, announcing that he lacked the evidence to substantiate the accusations of voting irregularities. Since he had neither the time nor the money to gather the necessary proof, Chilton withdrew that portion of his complaint. In doing so, he claimed patriotic motives, insisting that, with the onset of the First World War, he did not wish to tie up the Senate in a domestic political skirmish. Given the lack of evidence and the fact that Sutherland denied the charges of corruption, the committee ended its consideration of possible voting irregularities and focused instead on the matter of Sutherland's campaign expenditures.

On June 26, 1918, the committee reported that all parties agreed that Sutherland had complied fully with requirements for filing and publishing campaign expense accounts. After a review of all the financial statements, both Chilton and Sutherland concurred that the Republican had spent in the primary campaign $51.63 more than state law permitted. Chilton did not claim that this cash had been dispensed for bribes or corruption but only that it exceeded West Virginia campaign limitations. In view of that charge, the committee examined the corrupt practices law of West Virginia, which required that an individual be convicted before he could be ejected from office. Since Sutherland had not been arrested, tried, or convicted, this section of the West Virginia law had no application in his case. The committee therefore held that there was no reason to deprive Sutherland of his seat and added that, even though he had duly filed reports before the election showing the excess expenditure, no one had challenged his right to run in the general election.

Without debate, the Senate, on June 29, 1918, unanimously accepted the committee's recommendation that Howard Sutherland should retain his seat.

Despite the small sum involved in these charges, the committee thoroughly examined state and federal statutes governing election finances. The final report emphasized that all state and federal laws related to election procedures "should be strictly complied with." The committee also made clear that it had exonerated Sutherland because the amount in this particular case was trivial, but this action should not "be regarded as a precedent for disregard of state laws limiting expenditures."

William Chilton made two additional unsuccessful efforts to return to the Senate—once in 1924 and again in 1939, the year he died. Howard Sutherland unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president as a favorite-son candidate in 1920, and then returned to his Senate duties until the conclusion of his term. Defeated for reelection in 1922, he resumed his West Virginia business activities. From 1925 to 1933, he served in Washington, D.C., as Alien Property Custodian, overseeing German property seized by the United States in World War I. He died in 1950.

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.

Return to Contested Election