Speaker election to enter 11th ballot, the most since before Civil War ~ January 5, 2023

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The race for House speaker race remains undecided as Republican leader Kevin McCarthy continued to fail to win a majority in the first 10 rounds of voting, and now as it is set to enter a 11th round, it will have gone to more rounds than any other time since before the Civil War. 

According to the House of Representatives, there have been 127 speaker elections since 1789. In the modern era, a nominee needs a majority of the House members voting — 218 if all 435 are present — to become speaker. Members of Congress cannot be sworn in until there’s a speaker. 

Prior to this week’s votes, 14 speaker elections required multiple ballots, with 13 of those occurring before the Civil War. The only time in the post-Civil War era was in 1923, when it took nine tries.

Six of those 14 elections were decided on the second or third ballot, but others took more than that — with the longest election finally ending after nearly two months and 133 ballots.

Here are the instances when the speaker vote required more than three ballots:

John W. Taylor, 22 ballots, 16th Congress 

In Oct. 1820, Henry Clay resigned as speaker after shepherding through the Missouri Compromise, which allowed slavery in Missouri but made Maine a free state and established the 36°30′ parallel as the boundary determining where slavery would be allowed in the U.S.

John W. Taylor of Saratoga, New York, first elected in 1812, was one of the earliest — and most outspoken — abolitionists in Congress. Although he had supported the Missouri Compromise, he ran for speaker in the 1820 special election opposing slavery in new territories.

His main opponent was the pro-slavery Rep. William Lowndes of South Carolina – who at one point came within one vote of winning. Taylor ultimately prevailed after 22 ballots over four days. 

After losing the speakership in 1821 to Clay, Taylor again won the speaker election in 1825 in a vote that took two rounds. 

Taylor served as speaker in the 19th Congress but ultimately lost the speaker’s race in the 20th Congress in 1827 to Andrew Stevenson of Virginia because of his abolitionist views. Taylor told his son “I lost my third election as Speaker, through my direct opposition to slavery.” 

Philip Pendleton Barbour, 12 ballots, 17th Congress

Taylor was defeated by Philip Pendleton Barbour of Virginia in 1821 in the 17th Congress after a vote that took 12 ballots.

John W. Bell, 10 ballots, 22nd Congress

John W. Bell of Tennessee, although initially a supporter of President Andrew Jackson, accepted support from Jackson’s opposition in the race for House speaker in 1833. The race went to 10 ballots before Bell ultimately defeated James K. Polk. 

Robert M.T. Hunter, 11 ballots, 29th Congress

Robert M.T. Hunter was the first speaker elected via public ballot, rather than secret ballot, although he was not the first choice for either the Democratic or the Whig party in the 1839 race for speaker. The two parties rallied around “highly partisan candidates” from Southern states, turning off the Unionist Southerners and Northerners, according to “Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government” by the University of Virginia’s Jeffery A. Jenkins and Charles Stewart III, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

That divide paved the way for Hunter to win the speakership on the 11th ballot, though he didn’t win a single vote when the first ballot was cast.

Howell Cobb, 63 ballots, 31st Congress

Neither the Democrats nor the Whigs had a majority in the 31st Congress, but Democrats — who held a plurality — had backed a compromise candidate, Howell Cobb of Georgia, who was pro-Union. But deep divisions between the parties and the separate organization of the Free Soil Party led to a split ballot on the first round, according to “Fighting for the Speakership.” 

The Free Soilers, made up of an equal number of Democrats and Whigs and divided over slavery, were not organized around a single candidate. 

Over the next three weeks of voting, the Democrats and Whigs could not rally around a single candidate, according to “Fighting for the Speakership.” Democrats decided to settle on a Westerner, William J. Brown, of Indiana, on the 32nd ballot. On Dec. 11, after seven more ballots, Brown received 80 votes — more than Cobb had ever received — and was within five votes of taking the majority. The Whigs’ chosen candidate, Robert C. Winthrop, sensed his defeat and withdrew his name. 

The House adjourned for the evening without selecting a speaker and when balloting resumed the next day, there were rumors Brown had struck a deal with Free Soilers. He had the votes of six Free Soil Party members on the first ballot of the day, but he lost the support of three Southern Democrats. 

On the 48th ballot, the Whigs switched their support back to Winthrop. As the stalemate continued, some unconventional methods to select a speaker were proposed – relying on a plurality or successive elimination of low-ranking candidates – but they were all tabled.

On Dec. 19, the Whig caucus invited six Democrats and six Whigs to create a “Conference Committee,” which met the next day, at which point 59 ballots had been cast with no speaker elected, according to “Fighting for the Speakership.” 

The “Conference Committee” decided there would be three more majority votes for speaker and if no speaker could receive a majority, it would go to a plurality vote. The rule change was brought to the House floor on Dec. 22, and it passed 113-105. The Democrats and the Whigs also decided to go back to supporting their original candidates, Cobb and Winthrop.

After no one received a majority in the next three votes, Cobb won on the 63rd ballot with a plurality, thanks to the newly enacted rule change.

Nathaniel Banks, 133 ballots, 34th Congress

The vote for speaker in 1855 was the longest in history, taking two months. Initially, 21 candidates were vying for the role, with Congress deeply divided over slavery.  Democrat William Richardson of Illinois, who supported slavery in future states, was an early frontrunner but fell far short of the 113 votes needed.

Anti-slavery congressmen then decided to back Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts, a member of the American Party (also known as the Know Nothing Party and, prior to 1855, the Native American Party). On the 33rd ballot, Banks managed to win100 votes, topping Richardson, but still falling short of a majority.

“This is not a mere contest as to a Speaker of the House; it is but an incident in a long and arduous struggle which is to determine whether slavery will be the pole star of our National career,” Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune wrote, according to The Washington Post

As the debate over the next speaker extended into January, Democratic Rep. Albert Rust of Arkansas, who opposed Banks’ candidacy, physically assaulted Greeley, who supported Banks. Rust struck “a stunning blow on the right side of my head and followed it by two or three more, as rapidly as possible,” Greeley wrote, according to the Post.

On Feb. 1, 1856, Democrats decided to back pro-slavery Rep. William Aiken Jr. of South Carolina. Democratic leaders also said they would again support a proposal to elect a speaker via a plurality if nobody could win a majority in the next three ballots. On Feb. 2, the plurality resolution passed. Banks received the most votes in each of the first three ballots, but he fell short of a majority each time. Aiken then seemed poised to pick up the plurality on the fourth vote.

But Banks managed to secure 103 votes to Aiken’s 100 because some of Aiken’s expected votes fell through. Banks had won the speakership on the 133rd ballot, nearly two months after the first ballot had been cast.

William Pennington, 44 ballots, 36th Congress

William Pennington won his first congressional term in 1859 as a Republican with support from disaffected Democrats. Republicans took control of the House in 1859, but did not support a specific candidate for speaker, instead deciding to back whoever won the majority in the first ballot.

Democrat Thomas S. Bocock received the most votes, but fell short of a majority. Republican John Sherman was the runner-up. Republicans backed Sherman, but before the second ballot, Democrat John Clark of Missouri gave an extended speech on the floor in which he tied Sherman to an anti-slavery writer, Hinton Helper. Clark claimed Helper was trying to build a class-based revolution among White Southerners in the wake of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, when Brown tried to start a revolt among slaves and end slavery.

After Clark’s speech, Sherman fell nine votes short of a majority. Over the next 10 days, eigh

t ballots were cast with the same pattern: Sherman failing to win a majority and Bocock holding firm with around 80 votes. 

After the 12th ballot, Bocock dropped out of the race, leaving Democrats with no clear choice. Still, no candidate was able to win a majority in 24 ballots that stretched beyond Christmas. In the new year, there were 10 more ballots between Jan. 4 and 11, again with no winner. Republicans nonetheless remained firm in their support of Sherman, according to “Fighting for the Speakership.” 

Republicans attempted to allow a candidate to win with a plurality, but the resolution failed in a procedural vote. Democrats began coalescing behind William N. H. Smith of North Carolina, a candidate from the American Party.On the 39th ballot, Smith’s vote count had increased, and he appeared to have a majority – but the clerk had not recorded the vote, and he wasn’t able to replicate the feat in subsequent votes. Another candidate, a Republican named William Pennington, a moderate freshman legislator who had been governor of New Jersey, emerged as a possible consensus candidate.The House adjourned until Jan. 30, and Sherman urged members to unify behind Pennington.When the House reconvened, Sherman urged Republicans to “vote in favor of any one of our number who can command the highest vote, or who can be elected Speaker of this House,” according to “Fighting for the Speakership.” On the 40th ballot, Pennington came out with 115 votes, three short of the majority. 

On the 41st ballot, Pennington and Sherman abstained in an attempt to lower the number of votes needed to win a majority, but Pennigton still fell short. The 42nd ballot had nearly the same result.Democrats met that night and decided to drop Smith as their candidate. On Jan. 31, on the 43rd ballot, Pennington raised his vote tally to 116. George Briggs, a Whig from Massachusetts, then said he would support Pennington the next day.On Feb. 1, on the 44th ballot, Pennington finally secured 117 votes, a majority of the 233 cast, giving him the speakership.

Frederick Gillett, 9 ballots, 68th Congress

Massachusetts Republican Frederick Gillett was first elected speaker in 1919. But during his 1923 bid, he faced a rebellion from the progressive wing of the Republican party in a closely-divided House. After three days of voting, Gillett was able to secure enough Republican support on the ninth ballot. He received 215 votes, which was less than a majority of the full House, but a majority of the votes that had been cast on that ballot, giving him another term as speaker.

At least 10 ballots, 118th Congress

McCarthy has so far failed to win a majority of votes in nine ballots and is now poised to fall short again on the ninth ballot on Jan. 5. The House minority leader can only afford to lose four Republican votes, assuming no Democrats also vote for him and they do not vote “present,” which would lower the threshold of votes constituting a majority.”This isn’t about me,” McCarthy said. “This is about the conference now because the members who are holding out … they want something for their personal selves.”

Democrats nominated their chosen leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, as speaker. In the first ballot, Democrats united behind Jeffries and he received 212 votes. McCarthy lost 19 Republicans, receiving just 203 votes.The outcome in the second ballot was the same. In the third ballot, McCarthy lost one more Republican, for a total of just 202 votes. The House abruptly adjourned for the night after the third ballot. On the second day of voting, McCarthy fell short in all three rounds of balloting, without converting a single “no” vote. He suggested on Tuesday night that some of the holdout Republicans could vote “present” to bring the total number of votes needed to secure a majority — but the only person who voted “present” was one of his own votes, bringing him down one more vote. On the third day, McCarthy remained stymied by conservative opposition. He made two key concessions to the 21 conservative holdouts on Wednesday, but none of them have voted to support him in the latest rounds Thursday.Correction: This story and headline have been updated to correct the number of previous cases.

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