DENVER (KDVR) – Primary election day for Colorado has come and gone, seemingly without much drama attached to it. At least that can be said when comparing this election cycle to the one that left the Centennial State with three governors in less than 24 hours.

The year was 1904, and those voting in the state were partaking in what the Rocky Mountain News called the “most flagrantly corrupt incident that has ever happened in Colorado.”

According to History Colorado, the 1904 election was highlighted by artificial votes being stuffed into ballot boxes, the abuse of union workers and an election clerk’s attempted escape from a moving train.

The gubernatorial race was between the incumbent, Republican James Peabody, and his Democratic opponent, Alva Adams, both of whom would retire from politics altogether a few months following the election.

Regardless of how the two controversial figures’ political careers concluded, the months leading up to and following Election Day that year would forever alter political machines, voter fraud oversight and the power that worker’s unions carry in elections going forward.

The lead-up to the 1904 Election in Colorado

The lead-up to this specific election was a tumultuous one for political activity, with parties doing all they could to get their vote out, regardless of how it got done.

According to the Colorado Virtual Library, owners of mines were forcing their employees to vote for the Republican candidate, Peabody, who had been the only governor in years who had sided with businesses rather than the working class.

During his term, Peabody had been forced to address working-class strikes, and he chose an aggressive and oppressive approach to do so. He even enlisted the state militia as the crackdown force used during these Colorado Labor Wars. As a result, the working classes were not a fan of him heading into the 1904 Elections.

Peabody’s opponent, Democrat Alva Adams, had served in the position twice before and, according to History Colorado, held a better reputation than the incumbent. Regardless, his record was not spotless.

Corruption surrounds Election Day 1904

Adams walked away from Election Day the narrow victor, but the matter was far from settled.

According to the Colorado Virtual Library, the Republican political machine had abused its power over businesses by making those who were running mining companies threaten their employees’ jobs, were they not to cast their vote in favor of Peabody.

On the other side of the proverbial aisle, those supporting Adams were accused of stuffing ballot boxes. According to the Gazette, one district that only had 100 registered voters tallied up 717 votes for Adams alone. After hearing these claims, Peabody contested the results and demanded an investigation ahead of Adam’s swearing-in.

History Denver said that the two parties had initially made an agreement where Peabody would get to choose the members of the State Supreme Court once he conceded, but the losing candidate refused to cooperate.

The fallout of the corrupt election

Peabody’s request for an investigation into the election results was granted and those leading it quickly found evidence of corruption.

The investigation’s findings revealed that the police in Denver at the time worked for the Democrats and had promised criminals that they would be acquitted of any voter fraud if caught. This resulted in one person casting 169 votes that day, all of which were eventually uncovered by investigators.

Up in the high country, where the mining towns slept, the coercion led by the companies’ leaders was uncovered, revealing that they had threatened the working class.

“If the Democrats should win, we may have to close the mine down,” the Victor Fuel Company owner said to his workers, “and if the Republicans should win and find out that one of the working men voted the Democratic ticket, they would fire him.” 

The workers were still upset about the years leading up to the election that were highlighted by union-busting, led partially by Peabody. History Colorado said that mine workers came forward in droves to investigators, reporting examples of ballot stuffing, physical coercion and voter fraud.

Another scandal to come out of this election involved an election clerk, Juan Montez, who was delivering a ballot box from Denver to Walsenburg. He was accompanied by a deputy with the Denver County sheriff, as he had already failed to deliver the ballot box once.

According to History Colorado, not long after the train’s departure from Denver, Montez leapt from the train in an attempt to flee with the ballot box. His effort was short-lived, however, as he was detained and charged with voter fraud.

The box from Huerfano County was found shortly thereafter and was found to have been empty, never having been used. As a result of this discovery, all ballots cast in that precinct were nullified.

March 16: The triple transition of power

Following the investigation’s conclusion, which included 200,000 pages of evidence and the testimony of over 2,000 witnesses, Adams resigned from his position after two months of holding it. Peabody was immediately sworn in, but he had already agreed to step down ahead of this ceremony.

According to History Colorado, Peabody resigned the next morning and Lt. Gov. Jesse MacDonald was sworn in, making him the third governor to be appointed in fewer than 24 hours.

Aside from their political careers, both fizzling out after the political chaos calmed, good came out of this ordeal in the form of an increase in voter fraud oversight, an improved situation for worker’s unions and a general calming of the uncertainty that surrounded Colorado’s political landscape during the turn of the 19th century.

To this day, the feat of having three governors sworn in on one day has not been replicated in any other state. We will have to wait until November to see if history repeats itself here in Colorado.