WASHINGTON — The Senate is set to count the certified electoral college votes on January 6. This would usually be a mundane constitutional act, but all eyes are on the Senate chamber after a handful of senators now say they will object to this certification, and social media has gone wild with claims about what they can and cannot do.
A meme circulating on Reddit, Twitter and Instagram claims that congressmen were removed from their positions in Congress in 1861 for "refusing to recognize Abraham Lincoln’s electoral win." The Verify team talked to the experts to see if that's accurate.
Were 11 senators and 3 representatives expelled from Congress for supporting insurrection and refusing to recognize Abraham Lincoln's electoral win?
Yes, but, experts say it's not comparable to our current situation.
- Daniel S. Holt, Assistant Historian at U.S. Senate Historical Office
- Robert Peck, a Constitutional Attorney with the Center for Constitutional Litigation
- A 2018 Congressional Research Service report: Expulsion of Members of Congress: Legal Authority and Historical Practice
- House of Representatives Office of the Historian's list of Expelled U.S. House Members
The meme in question has been reposted and shared now thousands of times, almost always with the implication that the senators who intend to fight the electoral college certification could be expelled from Congress.
Daniel Holt, a Senate historian, says that while the claim is true, the implication is not.
The U.S. Senate website has a list of all members who have been expelled. There haven't been many cases.
Eleven senators were expelled in the year 1861, but the charges for all of them are "Support for the Confederate rebellion." The partner list for the House of Representatives shows three members were expelled in 1861. Listed as the cause for all three is "Disloyalty to the Union; fighting for the Confederacy."
Holt says that while members have been expelled, drawing a comparison between then and now wouldn't be accurate.
"The Senate did indeed expel members who supported secession and the Confederacy," Holt told us via email. "However, drawing a parallel between 'refusing to recognize Abraham Lincoln’s electoral win' and what is happening today with relation to the procedural objections to counting the electoral votes is not accurate. The senators were expelled for vacating their seats and supporting the secession and rebellion of southern states."
Constitutional expert and attorney Robert Peck agrees.
"That historic 'precedent,' even while possible to be repeated today, seems highly unlikely," Peck told us via email. "The dissident senators have been very careful in their language to avoid seeming disloyal to the United States. For that reason, it does not seem comparable – at least yet."
The Expulsion Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 5) allows both houses of Congress to expel members "with the Concurrence of two thirds," meaning a vote of two-thirds supermajority. Peck says it is highly unlikely that Congress would reach the threshold necessary to expel anyone.
According to the Senate's list of expelled members, no one has been officially expelled since Sen. Jesse Bright (D-IN) in 1862 for Support for the Confederate rebellion.
The most recent house member expelled was Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) in 2002 for several charges including conspiracy to commit bribery and racketeering.
So yes, we can Verify that 14 congressmen were expelled from Congress in 1861, but not simply for opposing Lincoln's victory, and it is misleading to compare that situation to our current one.