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The Election Case of J. Thomas Heflin v. John H. Bankhead II of Alabama (1932)

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Campaign irregularities; recount of disputed ballots.

Resolution introduced: Jan. 29, 1931
Referred to committee: Feb. 26, 1931
Committee report: April 18, 1932
Senate vote: April 28, 1932

Result: Bankhead retained seat

The 1923 Code of Alabama empowered state political organizations to establish qualifications for candidates, including mandatory disclosure of how an individual had voted in the most recent presidential election. Under this procedure, the Democratic state committee refused to allow incumbent Senator J. Thomas Heflin to run in the party's 1930 primary because he had backed Republican Herbert Hoover for president in 1928. With Heflin excluded from the race, John H. Bankhead II won the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Heflin then abandoned the Democrats and joined the effort to launch a splinter party, the Jeffersonians or Independent party, which named him as its U.S. Senate candidate. In the general election, however, Democrat John Bankhead soundly defeated the two-term maverick senator.

Statement of the Case
When he returned to Washington in January 1931 for the final two months of his term, Thomas Heflin informed the Senate that he would contest the Alabama election and would request a recount. In a lengthy presentation, Heflin argued that he had "been defrauded of the right to run in the regular Democratic primary" and charged that Bankhead's election was invalid due to the misuse of voter lists and absentee ballots, irregularities in the tabulation and posting of returns, and payment of poll taxes for voters in arrears. By requesting an investigation of the election, Heflin clearly hoped to convince the Senate not to seat Bankhead when he appeared for the term that commenced on March 4, 1931. The Alabama legislature criticized Heflin's effort, adopting a resolution charging him with "poor sportsmanship in refusing to accept defeat like a man."

On February 26, 1931, the Senate acceded to Heflin's request and asked the Committee on Privileges and Elections to investigate the Alabama election. It authorized the committee to take possession of the ballots, poll lists, tabulation sheets, and all other records from the November 1930 senatorial contest. The members prudently attached an amendment that limited investigation expenses to $10,000, but before the tangled, intense case wound to its conclusion almost fifteen months later, the Senate had authorized and spent more than $100,000 on Heflin's challenge.

Response of the Senate
A subcommittee of three Republicans and two Democrats carried out a recount of the ballots and conducted hearings in both Alabama and Washington throughout 1931 and into the spring of the following year. Despite the continuing investigation, John Bankhead, armed with valid credentials, was seated when the Senate assembled for the first session of the 72nd Congress on December 7, 1931.

Once the massive volume of testimony had been gathered, Republican members of the subcommittee decided from the evidence that the Democratic primary had been invalid because it barred any candidate who had supported the Republican ticket in 1928. Additionally, they insisted that voting irregularities throughout Alabama had been so numerous and flagrant in the general election that the United States Senate should simply declare that no election occurred.

Democrats Walter George (GA) and Sam Bratton (NM) submitted a minority report that viewed the intricate political events somewhat differently. They argued that the Democratic state committee was within its legal rights in excluding Heflin from the primary. The Alabama statutes that permitted a party loyalty qualification did not conflict with federal legislation, because the federal government had not attempted to impose any jurisdiction over state primaries. They observed that Heflin had failed to question the state committee's regulations before the primary and had made no effort to block Bankhead's candidacy at the state level. Instead, Heflin had devoted his energies to organizing a new political party and did not formally protest the Democratic primary procedure until after he suffered defeat in the general election. Citing numerous legal precedents, George and Bratton asserted the overriding principle that, once the voters had chosen between two candidates, the manner of placing those candidates on the ballot was no longer relevant. They also stressed that, under Alabama law, an election could not be voided because of irregularities which were not shown to have changed the result of the election. The ballots thrown out in the recount still left Bankhead the winner by more than 34,000 votes. Bankhead himself had not been linked to any of the irregularities cited, nor were these found to be evidence of fraud.

George and Bratton succeeded in convincing the majority of the full Privileges and Elections Committee that Bankhead had been legally elected, and the committee adopted their report, which was presented to the Senate on April 18, 1932. Some committee members, however, continued to be troubled by such aspects of the Alabama election as broken ballot box seals and the occasional use of hat boxes for ballots, allowing ballots to be taken from the polling place and voted by individuals who were ill, and the failure to provide voting booths in some polling locations. As a result, three Republicans submitted a minority report. They acknowledged that Bankhead himself had not been revealed as personally corrupt, but they believed the widespread, blatant irregularities made it impossible to ensure that fraud did not occur. They therefore urged their colleagues to declare that no election had taken place.

During the floor debate, Heflin's friends arranged for him to address the Senate on April 26, 1932. Heflin used this opportunity to unleash his well-known passionate oratorical style in a dramatic appeal that his case should be properly investigated. The intensity of Heflin's rhetoric prompted such enthusiastic demonstrations of support from the galleries that the presiding officer finally ordered the spectators removed. In the face of Heflin's harangue, the previously silent Bankhead spoke in his own defense the next day, insisting that his election had been valid.

After a week of emotional debates, the Senate on April 28, 1932, agreed with John Bankhead and voted 64 to 18 that he had been duly elected and should retain his seat.

Heflin, who had been notorious during his Senate years for demagogic diatribes expressing his racial and religious bigotry, ran unsuccessfully for both the House and Senate in subsequent years. For several years, he served as a special representative of the Federal Housing Administration. Heflin died in 1951. John Bankhead remained in the Senate until his death in 1946, becoming influential in agriculture policy during the New Deal and World War II.

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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