Jerry Kopel

KOPEL: SNAFU IN COLORADO

Blunder in 1876 gave Dems an easy victory

Mark Oct. 3 on your calendar. That’s the date 134 years ago when voters in Colorado went to the polls for the first general election as a state. They began the election with a big error. 

Researchers have concentrated on Colorado giving up a vote for presidential electors by regular voters and allowing the new 1876 state Legislature to choose the three presidential electors. That wasn’t a mistake, just a “deal” to help elect a Republican replacement for president. 

The mistake came further along based on a Republican Party decision to take as much as they could in this election. Voters not only chose a Republican legislature, but also swept the executive branch from governor to attorney general. Democrats only won the state auditor race and some presence in the judicial branch. 

Under terms of Colorado’s admission to statehood there was also a congressional race or “races.” It depends on whether to follow Democratic or Republican interpretations. Colorado was only entitled to one congressman, but the new congress did not take office until March 5, 1877. So there was a shortened term available from Oct. 3 to March 4, and a regular term from March 5, 1877 to March 4, 1879. 

Republican Party bosses interpreted the law to mean both terms could be filled at one election. Democrats explained only the shorter term could be filled as the result of the Oct. 3 election. 

Candidates for both terms were the same: Democrat Tom Patterson vs. Republican James Belford. Patterson repeatedly argued in public debate that election to a regular longer term in Congress across the nation HAD to be on Nov. 7, 1876. His warnings were ignored. Belford won both the shorter term (13,302 to 12,865) and the longer term election (13,532 to 12,544). 

Then Democrats, following Patterson’s advice, proclaimed there had been no long term election to the 45th Congress. Democrats then held an election on November 7 for the two-year term. Meanwhile the October returns had been canvassed and Secretary of State William Clark had issued Belford a certificate of election to the 45th Congress as well as the shorter term 44th Congress. 

Based on the certificate, Republicans refused to have anything to do with another election for the two-year term to Congress. Republican leaders told their members to boycott the Nov. 7 contested election. That is exactly what Republicans did, even though Belford’s name was on the ballot as the Republican candidate. 

The election results on Nov. 7 were Patterson, 3,580, Belford, 172, and 77 voters for imaginary other candidates. So the choice was now between a certified Belford and an uncertified Patterson. Fortunately for Patterson the U.S. House on March 5, 1877, was Democratic. 

By a vote of 116 to 110, the House decided Patterson’s November victory invalidated Belford’s October two-year term election. One easy to read bill passed in 1872, which set out one November day for congressional and presidential elections. That did not affect elections to fill unexpired terms. 

Hopefully Belford discovered the “big shots” often did not know the law. Belford ran in November of 1878 for the Congress seat. He won three times and stayed in Congress for six more years. Patterson ran for and won the U.S. Senate seat for Colorado from 1901-07. 

Nationally, the Republicans placed Rutherford Hayes in as president based in part on Colorado’s three electoral votes. In return federal troops who had been placed in the South to protect constitutional rights of Negro citizens were removed from the South. That was basically the end to reconstruction. 

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.