Jerry Kopel


Mark Oct. 3 on your calendar. That's the date 126 years ago when voters in Colorado went to the polls for the first general "state" election.

Colorado became a state August 1, 1876. Part of the "deal" with Washington was that voters would NOT vote in the presidential election of 1876. The state legislature would choose the three electors Colorado was entitled to. Why? President Ulysses Grant felt uncertain about who Colorado voters would choose and more comfortable about a potential Republican majority in the state legislature.

Coloradoans not only chose a Republican legislature, but 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, depending on whether to follow Democrat 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 short term available from Oct. 3 to March 4, and a long term from March 5, 1877 to March 4, 1879.

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 long term in Congress across the nation HAD to be on Nov. 7, 1876. His warnings were ignored. Belford won both the short term (13,302 to 12,865) and long 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, and held their own election on Nov.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 short term 44th.

Based on the certificates, Republicans refused to have anything to do with another election for the two year term to Congress. Party leaders told their members to boycott the Nov. 7 election. That's 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 "scattered" for imaginary candidates. So the choice was now between a certified and uncertified candidate. Fortunately for Patterson, the U.S. House of Representatives on March 5, 1877, was Democratic.

By a vote of 116 to 110, the House decided Patterson's November win invalidated Belford's October victory. One reason was an 1872 law passed by Congress, which set one November day for congressional and presidential elections. (That didn't affect elections to fill unexpired terms.) Belford won the election in November of 1878 and stayed in Congress for six years. Patterson became a U.S. Senator for Colorado from 1901-1907.

Meanwhile the Colorado legislature began work Nov. 1 and passed House Bill 1, which called the House and Senate into joint session on Nov.7 to choose three presidential electors. They in turn voted for Rutherford Hayes, Republican presidential candidate. The legislature also appointed two Republican U.S. Senators.

The 1876 presidential election was the most corrupt in American history, with state returns in the South thrown out under the watchful eye of federal troops. Hayes "won" the electoral vote 185 to 184 after a compromise with the Democrats. There might have been no deal but for Colorado's three electoral votes.

In return for the presidential office, federal troops "who enforced the constitutional amendment giving Negroes full rights of citizens" were removed from the South. That was the end of "Reconstruction".

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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