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The Election Case of Raymond E. Willis v. Frederick Van Nuys of Indiana (1939)

Frederick VanNuys

Campaign irregularities; Senate refused recount.

Petition received: Mar. 13, 1939
Referred to committee: Mar. 13, 1939
Committee report: April 13, 1933
Senate vote: April 13, 1939

Result: Van Nuys retained seat

As Senator Frederick Van Nuys (Democrat) faced his Republican challenger, Raymond E. Willis, in the 1938 Indiana senatorial contest, the incumbent found it necessary to disavow any connection with a Democratic political organization of unsavory repute, the Two Per Cent Club. During his campaign, Van Nuys denounced the organization, stating, "I could not have accepted aid from the Two Per Cent Club . . . for the simple reason that I regard that organization as violative of both the Federal and State Corrupt Practices Act." After Van Nuys won the general election by 5,100 votes, this uncompromising pronouncement proved helpful when the defeated Willis decided to request a recount.

Statement of the Case
On January 3, 1939, Van Nuys presented his credentials and took his oath of office. On March 13, Raymond Willis submitted a petition alleging that serious irregularities—such as tampering with voting machines and allowing improperly registered persons to vote—had occurred during the Indiana election. Willis also charged that recipients of Works Progress Administration jobs and relief were told that they would not receive future assistance if they failed to vote for the Democrats, and he complained about the infamous Two Per Cent Club, which was said to have violated the corrupt practices acts by collecting and disbursing thousands of dollars for the senatorial election without keeping appropriate records. In calling for a recount, Willis made clear that Van Nuys had not known about or participated in the election misconduct. The Senate referred the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.

Response of the Senate
It took the committee only a month to return a report favorable to Van Nuys. The committee called the allegations vague and doubtful, noting that, even if some irregularities could be proven, the number of votes affected totaled only about 120, not sufficient to alter the outcome of the election. The committee added that it was already aware of some voting abuses connected with federal relief programs and the promises of "jobs, food, and favoritism" in return for votes. It had recently reported to the Senate a bill designed "to protect persons on relief in the freedom and sanctity of their voting rights." No allegations connected Van Nuys with any of the violations, and he had explicitly disassociated himself from the activities of the Two Percent Club.

On April 13, 1939, the committee recommended that Willis' petition for an investigation and recount be dismissed. Without debate, the Senate immediately agreed by voice vote, and Frederick Van Nuys retained his seat without further challenge.

Raymond Willis, unsuccessful candidate in 1938, won a seat in the Senate in 1940. He served one term and then returned to the publishing business in Indiana. He died in 1956. Frederick Van Nuys remained in the Senate until his death in 1944.

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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