‘A Period of Hellish Disturbance’ in Wake of 1904 General Election

In December 1904, the Colorado Supreme Court threw out an entire precinct’s votes in a general election. But the issue started nearly three months earlier in September and wouldn’t conclude until March 1905. 


In People ex rel. Smith v. District Court of the Third Judicial District, the Colorado Supreme Court determined it was the duty of election judges in rural precincts to place names in voter registration lists that were vouched for by one of the election judges. The election judges weren’t allowed to strike any names that were vouched for or proven by affidavit or statute. The state Supreme Court also ruled the district court had jurisdiction to restrain election judges by injunction from striking names from the registration list, and the Supreme Court wouldn’t prohibit the district court from doing so. 

The per curiam opinion said, “We conclude that the district court has jurisdiction to prevent the judges of election from striking from the registration lists the names of persons theretofore registered.” 

It went on to say that “Perhaps the order originally entered was too broad, in that, literally construed, it would prevent the board from revising or correcting the first list. This order, however, does not oust the court of jurisdiction. We must assume that in making the final order it will be so worded that the judges will, not be inhibited from, revising and correcting the registration lists to the extent contemplated by section 110 of the election law.”

According to the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Denver Times reported the decision came as a surprise not only to the Denver elections commission’s attorneys, but to many lawyers in the state. “It further rendered a decision in the Las Animas County case which clears the way for Judge [Jesse] Northcutt to change the result in that county, if he will, so as to defeat Dr. [Michael] Beshoar for senator and put [Casimiro] Barela in his stead,” the outlet reported. 

The Eagle Valley Enterprise reported the ruling by the state Supreme Court didn’t impact the votes cast in that precinct for the presidential election, which was between Republican incumbent President Theodore Roosevelt and Democratic challenger Alton Parker. The news outlet noted confusion around the decision, reporting, “the supreme court had before ordered that the very returns it now declared shall not be counted should be counted for the presidential electors and members of congress, thus eliminating from the proceedings a federal question that the United States Courts would have jurisdiction to consider.” 

Colorado Supreme Court Judge Robert Steele noted his dissent to the newspaper, saying, “it is unwarranted, without precedent and directly contrary to the law.” Steele was elected chief justice of the state Supreme Court just a few years later in 1907. The Eagle Valley Enterprise reported the state Supreme Court also denied Democrats a writ of prohibition against Northcutt which would restrain him from interfering with orders from the Las Animas County Court “to count the Bradford returns instead of the Primero returns.” The outlet noted, “This will result in the Peabody people gaining several hundred votes in Las Animas.” 

The Eagle Valley Enterprise concluded, noting, “It begins to look as though the people of Colorado are in for a period of hellish disturbance…” 

The 1904 election was also noteworthy not only as the most corrupt election in the state’s history, but because the vote count stemming from this issue coupled with ballot stuffing, gerrymandering and poll coercion led to Colorado gaining the unusual honor of being the only state to have three governors in one day

In a somewhat similar case, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Dec. 7 in Moore v. Harper, which focuses on the independent state legislature theory — a legal theory that places election powers like drawing congressional maps in the hands of state legislatures.

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