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The Election Case of Holm O. Bursum v. Sam G. Bratton of New Mexico (1926)

Image of Sam Bratton

Charges of voting fraud; Senate refused recount.

Resolution introduced: Mar. 9, 1925
Referred to committee: Mar. 10, 1925
Committee report: April 30, 1926
Senate vote: April 30, 1926

Result: Bratton retained seat

The November 4, 1924, elections in New Mexico included closely contested races for the governorship and the United States Senate. Narrow Democratic victories for these positions prompted the two defeated Republicans to join forces in a challenge that began in the state courts and extended to the U. S. Senate. The defeated incumbent senator, Holm O. Bursum, hoped that evidence of general voting irregularities and tallying procedures throughout the state would convince the local courts to invalidate the election. Not content to depend entirely upon a ruling of the New Mexico state courts, Bursum informed the Senate in January 1925 that he planned to contest the March seating of his opponent, Sam Bratton, a former state judge.

Statement of the Case
When Bratton appeared in the Senate on March 4, 1925, the oath of office was administered without delay. Five days later the machinery for an investigation into Bratton's election began to grind slowly into action. On March 10 the Senate referred the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, but Bursum waited until October 1925 to submit a formal statement of protest. In his petition Bursum charged that Bratton's plurality of 2,797 votes had been secured by altering returns, illegal voting by students at their colleges instead of in their home precincts, denying the vote to Indians, and illegally extending the vote to aliens, minors, and ex-convicts.

Response of the Senate
On April 30, 1926, the committee returned a report favorable to Bratton. The report noted that, after initiating the charges, Holm Bursum repeatedly delayed presenting his evidence to the committee despite its attempts to contact him. In somewhat testy tones, the committee explained that finally in late November 1925 Bursum's attorney appeared and withdrew the various charges of ballot mutilations, voting fraud, and residential violations. Instead, Bursum sought to rest his case entirely upon a ballot recount, stating that he would drop his challenge if the recount did not substantiate his claim.

The committee agreed to this procedure and granted Bursum three weeks to produce his evidence and affidavits. When they arrived, the long-awaited documents and photographs convinced the committee that, although some discrepancies in the tallies ultimately reduced Bratton's margin of victory, they did not alter the election outcome. In fact, the only significant irregularity was created by election officers totaling the tally sheets, and their mathematical errors had been corrected later by the state canvassing boards. These mistakes did not constitute misconduct, and the committee did not consider them sufficient to warrant a recount that would have no bearing on the election results.

The committee saw no need to recommend spending substantial public funds and weeks of time to conduct a recount, since Bursum had failed to provide evidence to substantiate his original charges of wholesale and deliberate illegalities on the part of election officials. Bursum lost on every front. On April 30, 1926, the Senate concurred with the unanimous findings of the committee and declared Sam Bratton entitled to retain his seat.

Holm Bursum pursued a newspaper career in Washington and in New Mexico until his death in 1953. Sam Bratton served in the Senate until 1933, when he resigned to become a judge on the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. He died in 1963.

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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