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The Election Case of Edmond A. Edmondson v. Henry L. Bellmon of Oklahoma (1976)

Campaign irregularities.

Petition filed: Jan. 9, 1975
Referred to committee: Jan. 14, 1975
Committee report: Jan. 27, 1976
Senate vote: Mar. 4, 1976

Result: Bellmon retained seat

Former Oklahoma Governor Henry L. Bellmon (Republican) first won election to the United States Senate in 1968. When Bellmon ran for reelection six years later, he was challenged by Democrat Edmond A. Edmondson, who had served for twenty years in the House of Representatives.

On November 5, 1974, incumbent Henry Bellmon defeated Ed Edmondson by 3,835 votes. Edmondson challenged the results on the ground that there had been improprieties in regard to the voting machines in Tulsa County. The Oklahoma supreme court ruled 9 to 0 on December 19, 1974, that, although the irregularities occurred, Edmondson had not demonstrated that they had had an impact on the outcome of the election. Once the court challenge was decided, the state went ahead and issued a certificate of election to Bellmon.

Statement of the Case
Unwilling to drop his challenge, Ed Edmondson filed a petition with the U.S. Senate on January 9, 1975. He charged violations of the laws of the state of Oklahoma and asked the Senate to accept jurisdiction over the contest. Four days later, on January 13, Henry Bellmon filed a response to the Edmondson petition together with a motion to dismiss. That same day, the Committee on Rules and Administration considered the petition, the motion, and the answer, and unanimously recommended to the Senate that Henry Bellmon be seated without prejudice to Edmondson's contest of the election. When the Ninety-fourth Congress convened on January 14, 1975, the Senate seated Bellmon without prejudice and referred the matter to the Committee on Rules and Administration.

Edmondson's petition and complaint challenged the voting results in Tulsa County and alleged that the following violations occurred:

  • The United States Senate contest was listed on the ballot after the state races, rather than before them as state law required.
  • The voting machines lacked devices for straight-party voting, again, contrary to law.
  • 545 of the 640 machines used in Tulsa County prominently displayed erroneous and misleading instructions as to straight-party voting, even though it was not possible on those machines.

Edmondson contended that, where the master Democratic party lever was missing from a voting machine, many voters had pulled the lever for the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, thinking it was the lever for all Democratic candidates. He pointed out that in Tulsa County Bellmon had won by 22,000 votes, while in the remaining counties Edmondson had led by 18,000 votes.

Response of the Senate
The Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections discussed the case on June 3 and then postponed further consideration until after it resolved the John Durkin-Louis Wyman election contest in the summer of 1975 by declaring the New Hampshire seat vacant and calling for a new election. Following a staff investigation in Oklahoma in August and October 1975, the committee held hearings on the Edmondson-Bellmon case in November and December, obtaining new evidence that had not been presented to the Oklahoma supreme court. After reviewing this additional data, expert witnesses testifying on Edmondson's behalf asserted that, "but for the violations of the law, there was a high probability that Mr. Edmondson would have received sufficient votes in Tulsa County to win in the statewide election."

On December 15, 1975, the Rules and Administration Committee members voted 5 to 3, along party lines with Democrats in the majority, that they were unable to identify a winner in the disputed election. The committee therefore referred the final determination to the Senate, which could, if necessary, declare a vacancy and call a special election. Republican members of the committee complained about the party-line nature of the vote, and Bellmon's Oklahoma colleague, Dewey F. Bartlett (Republican) contrasted the Senate's action with the case of Dennis Chavez and Patrick Hurley in 1954. In that instance, he declared, the Senate, then under Republican control, refused to disfranchise New Mexico voters simply because of the failings of election officials.

On January 27, 1976, the Rules and Administration Committee presented its report on the case to the Senate. The majority report found that irregularities and violations of Oklahoma law had occurred that could have affected the outcome of the election, because "the statutes violated were substantive in nature, affecting the franchise." The form of the irregularities made it impossible for the committee to "determine who would have won the election had the violations of law not occurred." A minority report agreed with the Oklahoma supreme court ruling that Henry Bellmon had won the election. The three Republican senators rejected Edmondson's contention that many Tulsa County voters failed to vote in the U.S. Senate race due to confusion over the misleading instructions, pointing out that in fact 97 percent of those who voted in that county did vote in the Senate race—a higher percentage than in any other county. Charging that the majority report was "a partisan document," the minority recommended that Edmondson's challenge to the election be dismissed, because Bellmon had been duly elected by the voters of Oklahoma.

When the Senate began considering the resolution submitted by the majority on March 1, it granted Edmondson the privilege of the floor for the occasion and permitted attorneys for both parties to sit at tables in the rear of the chamber. The body also allowed the use of visual aids in the case, and two voting machines from Tulsa were brought to the floor for a demonstration, one with and one without the misleading instructions for straight-party voting. During the debate, Bellmon spoke once, asserting that the Senate would set a bad precedent if it declared the seat vacant, since there were no charges of misconduct against either candidate, and Edmondson had not requested a recount. It was simply a close election, he contended, and throwing out the results could lead the losers of all close elections to appeal to the Senate.

The debate continued until March 4, when the Senate finally voted 47 to 46 to table the majority's resolution. Nine Democrats joined all Senate Republicans in voting to end the challenge against Bellmon, who had energetically lobbied his colleagues for their support. By voice vote, the Senate then agreed that Henry Bellmon should retain his seat.

Henry Bellmon remained in the Senate until 1981. In 1986 he was once again elected governor of Oklahoma. Ed Edmondson tried for the Senate again in 1978 but failed to win nomination.

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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