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The Election Case of Patrick J. Hurley v. Dennis Chavez of New Mexico (1954)

Photo of Senator Dennis Chavez

Campaign irregularities; recount of ballots.

Petitions filed: Dec. 30,1952
Referred to committee: Jan. 7, 1953
Committee report: Mar. 16, 1954
Senate vote: Mar. 23, 1954

Result: Chavez retained seat

Thanks to his outstanding strategic abilities, Senator Dennis Chavez (Democrat-NM) had won three senatorial elections in New Mexico's tumultuous political climate by 1952. After a narrow defeat by Bronson Cutting in his first senatorial race in 1934, Chavez contested the election results. When Cutting died in a 1935 plane crash, the New Mexico governor appointed Dennis Chavez to fill the unexpired term. Chavez won a special election in 1936 and was reelected in 1940 and 1946. In 1952, his Republican opponent for a third complete term was retired Major General Patrick J. Hurley, whom he had defeated in the 1946 election and who had run again unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1948.

Having served as secretary of war in Herbert Hoover's administration and ambassador to China under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Patrick Hurley persistently sought a Senate seat as a forum for his anti-Communist views. In the 1952 election, Chavez, who was viewed as a New Deal liberal, faced the problems of increasing public disillusionment with liberalism and a Republican ticket headed by two popular figures, presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower and incumbent Governor Edwin L. Mechem. When the votes in the close Senate race were finally tallied, Chavez, the Democrat, had narrowly won reelection by 5,071 votes, in spite of easy victories in the state by Eisenhower and Mechem.

The day after the election, November 5, 1952, Hurley challenged the results, but on November 29, the New Mexico state canvassing board certified that Chavez had been elected. Hurley then demanded a recount which, when completed in December, resulted in increasing the incumbent's majority by 304 votes. Having exhausted his remedies in the state, Hurley filed a petition of contest with the United States Senate on December 30, 1952.

Statement of the Case
When the 83rd Congress convened on January 3, 1953, the Senate permitted Dennis Chavez to take the oath of office subject to a request by Robert A. Taft (Republican-OH) that he be seated "without prejudice to the right of anyone contesting the seat to proceed with the contest." On January 7, the Senate referred Patrick Hurley's petition to the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections of the Committee on Rules and Administration. The complaint alleged numerous irregularities in the conduct of the 1952 New Mexico election, particularly violations of ballot secrecy.

After a preliminary staff investigation, the Committee on Rules and Administration decided on April 17, 1953, to conduct a full inquiry, including a recount of all ballots, examination of voter registration records, a field investigation, and hearings. The committee submitted two separate resolutions to the Senate seeking funds for the investigation and eventually spent almost $229,000. The subcommittee, consisting of Chairman Frank A. Barrett (Republican-WY), Charles E. Potter (Republican-MI), and Thomas C. Hennings, Jr. (Democrat-MO) devoted considerable effort to developing a set of written procedures prior to the field investigation. Still, the committee's work soon assumed a highly partisan tone, to the degree that Hennings, the minority member of the subcommittee, found himself virtually excluded from the investigation, as it continued throughout 1953 and into early 1954.

The partisanship was understandable, for more than a single Senate seat was at stake, since transfer of that seat from a Democrat to a Republican could affect party control of the Senate. When the 83rd Congress was organized, the Republicans had a clear majority of 49 seats to the Democrats' 47. In July 1953, however, Robert Taft had died and a Democrat was appointed to fill his seat. Also during 1953, Wayne Morse of Oregon, originally elected as a Republican, declared himself an Independent. As a result of these changes, the Democrats could claim a bare majority of 48 to 47, although the Republicans retained the leadership positions within the Senate. If Hurley were seated instead of Chavez, the Republicans would again have a clear majority. Because of the pivotal nature of the case, articles about it often received front-page coverage in major national newspapers.

Response of the Senate
When the subcommittee had still not released its report by March 1954, Democratic senators became increasingly concerned that the Republican-dominated committee would defer action until after the fall elections, when their party might hold the majority with sufficient votes to unseat Chavez easily. After their party caucus on March 9, Senate Democrats therefore pressed the issue by challenging the committee to issue a report within one week or face a Democratic effort to remove the issue from the committee. Two days later, the Privileges and Elections Subcommittee filed its report with the full Rules Committee, which quickly adopted it on March 16 by a party-line vote of 5 to 4. A resolution accompanying the report stated that no one had been elected to the Senate from New Mexico and that a vacancy existed. If the resolution were adopted, Governor Mechem, a Republican, could appoint a temporary replacement for Chavez.

The report contended that the New Mexico election "revealed the deplorable spectacle of exploitation and breakdown of an electoral system through irresponsible and ineffective administration." Specifically, the investigation discovered that at least 55,000 citizens were deprived of a secret ballot; assistance to 4,000 disabled voters was improperly provided; and ballots were fraudulently altered in 33 precincts, making all 17,000 votes cast in those precincts suspect. After an intense investigation, the subcommittee found that in 21 counties no voting booths were provided, so that voters had to "mark their ballots in an open room" in full view of election officials. In a number of other counties, booths were provided but violations of secrecy still occurred. Other problems uncovered included difficulties with the registration system, permitting aliens to vote, and illegal, premature destruction of ballots in three counties. The majority therefore concluded that all votes tainted by such irregularities should be eliminated and that the Senate should declare that no one had been elected to the Senate from New Mexico in 1952.

Thomas Hennings, the lone Democratic member of the subcommittee, filed a minority report, deploring the subcommittee's failure to conduct an objective and nonpartisan inquiry. He complained that he had not been consulted by the other members regarding either their deliberations or the final report. Stating that the majority report contained no evidence of either corruption or fraud by Dennis Chavez or that the vote for Chavez was increased as a result of the irregularities, Hennings charged that the Senate would set an unfortunate precedent if it disfranchised New Mexico's voters and unseated Chavez simply because the state's election officials failed to comply with the election code. He then refuted the majority's findings point by point and concluded that the Senate should find Dennis Chavez to be the legally elected senator.

As the Senate began to debate the committee's resolution on March 22, newspapers both in New Mexico and across the country expressed opposition to voiding the results of an election that had chosen a decidedly bipartisan ticket. Many pointed out the irony that such a decision would place the power to appoint a temporary successor in the hands of a Republican governor chosen in the same supposedly flawed election.

Soon after the debate began, Guy Cordon (Republican-OR) introduced an amendment significantly altering the resolution. It stated, "And that it is the sense of the Senate that said vacancy should be filled only by election held pursuant to the laws of the State of New Mexico." The amendment was intended to deflect Democratic arguments and relieve concerns about having a Republican chosen in the same election appoint a replacement to fill the vacated Senate seat. During the debate, Republican speakers, such as Subcommittee Chairman Frank Barrett, focused on the flaws in the 1952 election, primarily the failure of election officials to provide voting booths. The Democrats argued that Cordon's amendment violated the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, which delegates the power to fill a vacancy to the governor until an election can be held. Hennings led the opposition but was joined by such powerful fellow Democrats as Walter George (GA), Carl Hayden (AZ), and Allen J. Ellender (LA). George reiterated Hennings' view that there was no historical precedent for the Senate to deprive citizens of their votes based on the misconduct of election officials. In general, the Democratic senators stressed that, because the lengthy and expensive investigation had failed to find fraud or wrongdoing by Dennis Chavez, he was entitled to retain his seat.

On March 23, 1954, Minority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat-TX) submitted a unanimous consent agreement, which the Senate agreed to, limiting the debate and setting a time for the final vote later that afternoon. When the roll-call votes on the amendment and the resolution took place, with Major General Hurley and his family observing from the gallery, Vice President Richard Nixon presided over the Senate. After voting down the Cordon amendment, 36 to 53, the Senate defeated the committee's resolution declaring a vacancy, again by a 36 to 53 vote. On each vote, 5 Republicans joined 47 Democrats in supporting Chavez, although not exactly the same 5 crossed party lines in each case. Although Chavez was present for the debate, he refrained from voting. The New York Times observed that the Democrats stood "in a solidarity they had not exhibited on a major issue in many years" and further noted that Lyndon Johnson had worked for weeks to make certain that none of his party colleagues would be absent on this critical day.

Of his vindication, Dennis Chavez commented that "truth and decency were on trial and as always in the end, they too prevailed." He was reelected to a fifth complete term in 1958 but died after a long illness on November 18, 1962.

Patrick Hurley had also filed complaints with the U.S. attorney of New Mexico and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). After listening to the FBI's report on September 24, 1954, a grand jury in Albuquerque found that Chavez had won an honest victory. It concluded that most of the allegations made by Hurley and others were politically motivated. Hurley returned to New Mexico, where he died in 1963.

The Chavez case exemplifies one of the dilemmas associated with Senate election cases. Most of the Senate agreed that reforms were needed in New Mexico's election procedures, but many senators clearly felt uncomfortable about directing the way a state should conduct its elections. While the New Mexico press defended the practice of voting at open tables if there were long lines at voting booths, newspapers in other parts of the country condemned this approach, though they agreed that Chavez had not been responsible for these conditions and should retain his seat.

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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