Matthew Yglesias has discovered afresh the massively inequitable US Senate. As longtime readers of this blog know, it’s historically been even worse than Yglesias notes: the party in power has rigged the course of admissions to keep itself in power. In 1889-90, Republicans rolled Democrats and got six new territories admitted as new states—not the most populous territories, but the most Republican-leaning territories, at least in five cases: Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.

But, as Heather Cox Richardson points out in a recent email, five out of six wasn’t good enough for the enterprising Republicans of the fifty-first Congress.

The sixth new state, Montana, tended Democratic in territorial elections, and was forecast to do so in its first state elections.1 But in November 1889, a close vote led to a confused result. The Democrats won the governorship, while the Republicans took the other state offices; the state senate was an 8-8 tie. It looked as though the Democrats had won the house by four seats. But a disputed vote in precinct 34 of Silver Bow County allowed the Territorial Secretary (a Harrison appointee) to certify Republican candidates for state legislature while the County Clerk certified Democratic candidates for state legislature.2 The fledgling state ended the year with its legislature split in two between Democrats and Republicans, and in January each side elected its own pair of US Senators.3

In February all four candidates for US Senate from Montana arrived in Washington to plead their case before the Senate’s Committee on Elections. As the NYT had it, the Republican case depended on throwing out Silver Bow’s precinct 34; without that, they were sunk. But the GOP didn’t need to worry; the Committee would seat the Republicans.

The Republican members of it [the Committee] are Messrs. Hoar, Evarts, Frye, Teller, and Spooner. They are all pronounced partisans. They yesterday manifested in words a determination to dispose of the case without much reference to anything except their desires and the desires of the Republican managers from the State of Montana.4

The Committee did as the NYT predicted.

… the proceeding at precinct 34 had no relation whatever to the real will of duly qualified voters, but was fictitious, pretended, and without validity either in form or substance.5

A principal piece of evidence to the Committee was that the voter roll, which was supposed to show who voted and in what order, instead showed the voters of Silver Bow precinct 34 in alphabetical order: “This seems to us conclusive evidence that the whole proceeding was manufactured.”6 The Committee were also concerned at the margin of Democratic victory in Silver Bow no. 34:

It is also singular, and to us incredible, that … the voters of this new community at precinct 34, who must have assembled from various parts of the country, whose names as they appear upon the poll list indicate their descent from various nationalities, should have been divided, in any fair election, between the two political parties, in the proportion of 171 to 3.7

In the event, then, the Committee seated the Republican Senators from Montana, and sent the Democrats home, which helped the Republicans to 51 seats of an 88-seat US Senate.

PS: For Tomasky’s plan to work, you have to get around Article V—“no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”


1“The Montana Election”, NYT 9/30/1889, p. 2.
2“The Montana Muddle”, NYT 11/5/1889, p. 1.
3“Montana’s Four Senators”, NYT 2/10/1890, p. 5.
4“Partisanship the Judge”, NYT 2/17/1889, p. 1.
5US Senate, Committee on Privileges and Elections, “In regard to the credentials of Messrs. Sanders, Power, Clark, and Maginnis,” 51st Congress, 1st Session, Senate report 538, serial set 2704, session vol no. 2, p. 9.
6Ibid., p. 10.
7Ibid.