The year was 1870. An election took place that June in Boise with a slate of candidates for various offices there for the choosing. The race for Ada County Sheriff turned out to be the one to watch.
L.B. Lindsey and William Bryon were the candidates in the race, and it was a close one. Six of the ballots had some variation of Wm. Bryon's name, but not the exact name. For instance, someone had written Bryon without a first name, three had spelled the name Brion, and three spelled it Bryant. They similar issues with ballots cast for Lindsey, or Linsy, or Lindsley, or Lensy. The election judges all the variations accepted as legal ballots. Upon further examination, judges determined that a handful of people who had cast ballots were not legal voters. Those ballots were thrown out.
It came down to 419 votes for Bryon, and 418 votes for Lindsey. One vote could make the difference between a victory or a tie. There was one ballot submitted by John West that had a special status.
West was a legal voter, and he had spelled the candidate’s name right. So why was his vote originally denied? Because he was, as the papers would say at that time, a colored man. Poll workers initially denied him the vote for that reason, probably because they did not know that the 15th Amendment to the Constitution had been ratified in February of that year. That amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The election judges determined that West’s vote was legitimate. He had written in Bryon's name, giving the new sheriff 420 votes.
That could have been the end of the story. Bryon was happy, and West was happy. West’s happiness might have been tempered a bit when Bryon arrested him a few months later on the charge of battery. West had gotten into a fistfight with Frank Slocum. The jury found West guilty. He was fined $30 and court costs, totaling $107.
That could have been the end of the story. West refused to pay the $107 and as a result, ended up in jail. He filed a writ of habeas corpus. In response, Sheriff Bryon offered a certified copy of the judgment in the case. When the Idaho Supreme Court reviewed it, they wrote a lengthy description of the case's circumstances, which local paper printed in full. We don’t have space and readers don’t have the patience to wade through that, so I’ll summarize.
The description of the case provided by the sheriff left out one detail, to wit, he failed to state what crime West was charged with. In its wisdom, the court determined that West could not be held without a stated crime for which he had been convicted. They ordered that he be discharged at once.
West, who was quick to engage in a fight, had a few other minor scrapes with the law over the years. He also got to know well the makers of laws. John West served as the master of the legislative cloakroom for many sessions of the Idaho Legislature, making sure everything was clean and in good order.
When he died at age 80, John West was remembered by the Idaho Statesman as “the dean of colored pioneers in Idaho.” No mention was made of that contested ballot.