Article I, Section 5, Clause 1 of the Constitution grants Congress the authority to determine its membership. Under this provision, when a candidate disputes the results of an election, a situation known as a “contested election,” the House determines who should be seated. When Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina served in the House of Representatives from 1870 to 1879 as its first Black Representative, the political inroads made during Reconstruction by Black Southerners started to disintegrate rapidly. The contested election was weaponized as a method of excluding African Americans from representation in Congress. The records of the Committee on Elections, part of the official records of the House of Representatives, document Rainey’s battle to prevail in two contested elections.
Contested elections may have been a new cudgel against Black political participation, but the need for a process to investigate them was recognized from the earliest days of Congress. The standing Committee on Elections was created shortly after Congress first convened. Once a contested election case was filed with the House, it was referred to the Committee on Elections, which conducted the investigation and reported back to the House. In some instances, the House made a final vote on the case. No right of appeal was available to the potential or incumbent Member who lost a seat.
Over its first years, the Election Committee’s scope broadened from simply gathering evidence to submitting recommendations to the House based on evidence and testimony. The haphazard nature of the committee’s work led to lengthy delays and the possibility that two people could claim a seat (and a salary) for months before the committee made a final determination. By 1851, the committee had formalized its procedures for investigating contested elections: setting a time frame for lodging a formal complaint; allowing the contestee to respond; and giving both parties the opportunity to collect their own evidence and testimony. The information was then provided to the Clerk of the House, who submitted it to the Committee on Elections. This was the procedure when Joseph Rainey faced two contested elections.
Elections could be contested for several reasons, including allegations of bribery, fraud, violence, disenfranchisement, and improper or inadequate provisions for voters at the polls. But because the House is by design a majority-controlled institution, changes in its partisan composition often proved determinative in settling contested elections. “There is no tyranny like that of majorities,” Committee on Elections Chairman Henry L. Dawes opined in 1870, “and efforts in the past to resist them and to hold the judgments of a committee of elections up above the dirty pool of party politics have encountered such bitter and unsparing denunciation and such rebuke for treason to party fealty that they are not likely often to be repeated.”
The number of contested elections fluctuated over time, but the years from 1865 to 1900 represented a peak in the Committee on Elections’ case load. It was also a period during which most cases were ruled in favor of the contestant, thus overturning the initial election results. A pitched partisan battle over the political participation of formerly enslaved men in the South contributed to the rise in contested elections. During this period, as Republicans fought to maintain political dominance, the South retaliated with Democratic-backed election fraud and violence. Both parties tried to use the process to their advantage. Initially, contested elections became another tool for Republicans to try to retain control of the House, for instance, securing 10 formerly Democratic seats in the 41st Congress (1869–1871). However, in the 44th Congress (1875–1877)—when Rainey’s election in 1874 was contested—Democrats took control of the chamber and added a total of nine seats through contested elections in that Congress and the next.
In late 1870, Rainey won election to fill a vacancy in the waning months of the 41st Congress and a full term in the 42nd Congress (1871–1873). In 1872, he breezed to re-election unopposed, however, in 1874 he was challenged by Independent Republican Samuel Lee, also an African American and the former speaker of the South Carolina house of representatives. Rainey won the election, but Lee claimed the result was invalid because Rainey’s name appeared as “Jas. H. Rainey” rather than “Jos. H. Rainey” on some ballots. Lee contended that this was a vote for a James Rainey, even though there was no man openly campaigning for the seat with that name.
In Rainey’s submission to the Committee on Elections in response to Samuel Lee’s claims, he flatly denied Lee’s accusations, and levied accusations of his own. In each precinct, Rainey alleged, “illegal votes were cast for you by minors, non-residents, unnaturalized foreigners, and persons who voted more than once” and Lee supporters engaged in ballot-box tampering and bribery. More ominous, were “threats and intimidations” made by Lee’s backers and the Ku Klux Klan, including shots being fired at voters on the morning of the election. Cumulatively, Rainey asserted, these acts “prevented many persons qualified to vote from voting for me, as they otherwise would have done.”
In May 1876, the Committee on Elections ignored these incendiary charges and instead addressed what it perceived to be “a question of law and a question of fact.” According to the law, the committee had “not only the right but the duty” to look at the circumstances involved and “get at the intent and the real act of the voter.” The committee’s determination was that since there were only two announced candidates for the seat, votes cast for “Jas. H. Rainey” could not have been conceivably intended to be cast for anyone but Joseph Rainey. The report concluded, “Your committee are of the opinion that whether a mistake or a fraud, it is a question of fact for whom the ballots were cast. And they have no reasonable cause to believe they were cast for any other person than Joseph H. Rainey, and that they were, in fact, cast for him, thereby giving him at least a majority of (628) six hundred and twenty-eight votes.” Rainey’s election was upheld and he kept his seat for the 44th Congress.
Rainey’s election to the 45th Congress (1877–1879) was again contested, this time with accusations of voter intimidation at the polls alleged by his Democratic opponent John S. Richardson. But in the short period since Rainey’s previous contested election, the Democrats retained control of the House and Democrat Wade Hampton was elected governor of South Carolina in 1876. Rainey arrived in Washington with the appropriate credentials signed by H.E. Hayne, the outgoing Republican secretary of state in South Carolina, but Richardson contested Rainey’s claim to the seat by providing a certificate of election endorsed by the new secretary of state under Governor Hampton. Rainey insisted on being seated before the Committee on Elections considered the case, telling his colleagues on the House Floor that his election certificate was issued “in accordance with law.” He added, “Though I be a republican and a colored man, I know that I have rights under the Constitution, and I prefer to enjoy them as do other members upon this floor.” Rainey accepted the authority of the Committee on Elections but demanded to be seated so that he could continue to serve his district during the months the case worked its way through the committee. “I met justice at one time at the hands of this House, and I feel that it will not be denied me in this Congress.”
The Democratic majority on the Committee on Elections, however, agreed with Richardson’s claim that voters were intimidated and declared Rainey’s seat vacant. Representative Ezekiel Ellis, a Democrat from Louisiana, submitted the committee’s lengthy report, which was riddled with partisan attacks on the Republican minority and protested federal involvement in state elections. The report described the Republican Party’s control of the South Carolina state government as a “period of misrule and plunder” enabled by the federal government and included dubious claims that the Democratic Party was truly committed to protecting the interests of African Americans. This was a significant contrast with the committee’s report on Rainey’s contested election during the 44th Congress, which provided a straightforward assessment of the facts of the case.
In May 1878, the Elections Committee reported to the full House its determination on Rainey’s election to the 45th Congress, but no vote was held on it. Although there were attempts to bring up the report for a floor vote, Rainey had become a key member of the Joint Committee on Enrolled Bills, leaving little motivation or appetite for removing him from his seat. Rainey ran against Richardson again to hold his seat in the 46th Congress, but he lost nearly 62 percent of the vote in a mostly Republican district to the Democrat. In the run up to the election, Rainey told a newspaper he believed he could not be defeated “by any fair means” given the size of the Republican majority in his district. Although Rainey also claimed that he was the victim of voter fraud in the 1878 election against Richardson, he declined to contest the election. Democrats remained in control of the House in the 46th Congress, and he likely calculated that he would have little chance of prevailing in a contested election. This loss marked the end of Rainey’s House service.
Rainey’s experience with contested elections was not unique among African-American Representatives during Reconstruction. In addition to Rainey, six other Black Members faced contested election proceedings—sometimes, like Rainey, more than once—which was half of all the African Americans elected to the House during this period. After Rainey left in 1879, another six African Americans served in the House during the next two decades, although they increasingly faced election contests and the gradual onset of Jim Crow laws and customs that eventually excluded Black Americans from the political process. Democrats also returned to power in Southern state governments following Reconstruction, which made it increasingly difficult for Black voters to elect the candidates of their choice because of violence, intimidation, and, by the 1890s, the use of poll taxes and other methods of voter suppression. Rainey’s promising example was undermined by systemic racism. Following the departure of Representative George White of North Carolina from the House in 1901, it would be 28 years before another African American served in the House.
For more about Joseph Rainey, download our publication “We Are In Earnest For Our Rights”: Representative Joseph H. Rainey and the Struggle for Reconstruction.
Sources: RG 233, Records of the Committee on Elections, National Archives and Records Administration; Annals of Congress, House, 1st Cong., 1st sess. (13 April 1789): 126–128; Congressional Record, House, 45th Cong., 1st sess. (16 October 1877): 63; House Committee on Elections, Richardson vs. Rainey, First Congressional District of South Carolina, 45th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 806 (1878); House Committee on Elections, Lee vs. Rainey, 1st Congressional District of South Carolina, 44th Cong., 1st sess., Mis. Doc. 57 (1876); House Committee on Elections, Lee vs. Rainey, 44th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 578 (1876); Somerset Herald (PA), 11 September 1878; Matthew N. Green, “Race, Party, and Contested Elections to the U.S. House of Representatives,” Polity, 39, no. 2 (April 2007): 155–178; Jeffery A. Jenkins, “Partisanship and Contested Election Cases in the House of Representatives, 1789–2002,” Studies in American Political Development, 18 (Fall 2004): 112–135; Jeffery A. Jenkins, “The First ‘Southern Strategy’: The Republican Party and Contested Election Cases in the Late-Nineteenth Century House,” Draft, October 3, 2005; Vincent M. Barnett Jr., “Contested Congressional Elections in Recent Years,” Political Science Quarterly, 54, no. 2 (June 1939): 187–215; C. H. Rammelkamp, “Contested Congressional Elections,” The Academy of Political Science, 20, no. 3 (Sept. 1905): 421–442; L. Paige Whitaker, “Procedures for Contested Election Cases in the House of Representatives,” Congressional Research Service Report, October 18, 2016; History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives, “ʻWe Are in Earnest for Our Rights’: Representative Joseph H. Rainey and the Struggle for Reconstruction,” September 2020; History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives, Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2019.Follow @USHouseHistory