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United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases

Senate Historical Office (1995) 

Article I, section 5 of the U.S. Constitution provides that each chamber of Congress “shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members” and may  “punish its Members for disorderly Behavior.” Over its more than 200-year history, the Senate has developed procedures for judging the qualifications of its members in contested elections and for taking disciplinary action against Senators through such measures as formal censure or actual expulsion from the Senate. U.S. Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases discusses in detail the 141 major cases of contested elections and disciplinary cases in the U.S. Senate from 1793 to 1990.

Contested election cases are included in this book if either the full Senate or a Senate committee took some action on the matter. Election disputes reviewed by the Senate have fallen into several general categories, including the form of the credentials presented and the conduct of the election. During the sectional conflicts before the Civil War, and in the war’s aftermath as the former Confederate states sought to return to the Union and send Senators to Washington, questions often arose regarding the legality of the legislature carrying out the election. Later in the 19th century and into the early 20th century, corrupt use of money became an issue, and the resulting public furor contributed to the eventual adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, which provides for the direct election of senators. Since that time, campaign expenditures, demands for recounts in close elections, and complaints of election irregularities or outright fraud have constituted the dominant issues surrounding contested elections.

Disciplinary cases are included in this book if a formal report was issued by the Select Committee on Ethics (or a predecessor committee) calling for action by the full  Senate. In disciplining its members, the Senate has two basic forms of punishment available to it: expulsion, which requires a two-thirds vote; or censure, which requires a majority vote. Since 1789, the Senate has expelled only 15 of its entire membership, all for disloyalty to the United States. In 1797 William Blount of Tennessee became the first senator to be expelled because of his involvement in a conspiracy that the Senate determined to be “entirely inconsistent with his public trust and duty as a Senator.” The other 14 expulsions were of Senators charged with supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. In several other cases, the Senate considered expulsion proceedings but either found the Senator not guilty or failed to act before the Senator resigned. Censure is a formal statement of disapproval. The Senate has censured nine of its members between 1811 and 1990 for transgressions ranging from breach of confidentiality to fighting in the Senate chamber and more generally for “conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute.”

U.S. Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases is arranged chronologically, presents background information that sets the case in historical context, and lays out the statement of the case and the Senate response to it (see example). Also included are the sources consulted in compiling the information on each case. Essays are reprinted in the Expulsion, Censure, and Contested Senate Elections sections of the Powers & Procedures section of the Senate website.