When Arizona Had Two Governors

Shortly after attaining statehood in 1912, Arizona had one of the closest elections ever in the US—which led to a crisis.

Governor George WP Hunt                                                          photo from Wikicommons

Arizona’s road to statehood was long and tortuous. Incorporated as a territory in 1860, it was a bastion of Confederate supporters during the Civil War. In the days before highways and air conditioning, Arizona was also a barely-inhabitable desert which nobody wanted to live in. Further, its sparse population was mostly Mexicans, which most Americans did not want in their country. And so, under various excuses, Arizona’s efforts to attain statehood were rejected.

By 1911, the territory was ready to try again, but this time its request was denied because of a provision in the state’s laws which allowed for the recall of judges, which the US declared was unconstitutional. When that provision was then repealed, Arizona was finally accepted into the union, and became the 48th state in February 1912. Democrat George WP Hunt was elected as the new state’s Governor.

In 1916, Hunt had already served two terms and was running for re-election, and was opposed by Republican Thomas Campbell. Both had been prominent in territorial politics before statehood, and both were well-known and popular. The race was very tight, and when the ballots were counted, it was announced that Campbell had won—by a mere 30 votes out of 60,000 ballots cast. Campbell was duly declared as the winner, but Hunt immediately demanded a recount.

Over the next several months, lawyers for both sides argued over which ballots should be accepted, which should be rejected, and how they should be counted. Some of the issues were fairly ordinary things that probably happen in every election but which were usually too rare to matter: in one precinct it was found that the election workers had helped some voters in filling out their ballots, which was illegal, and in another it was found that on a few dozen ballots somebody had apparently erased the marked votes for one candidate and changed them to the other.

But the biggest issue was the result of the design used by Arizona’s paper ballots. The ballots had two boxes at the top which allowed voters to simply vote a straight ticket for either party by checking the appropriate box—but it also had boxes next to each candidate’s name in every race to allow people to vote individually in each race. In some of these ballots, however, the voter had checked the box at the top for a straight ticket, but had also checked one of the boxes for Hunt or Campbell. Since these ballots were enough to give the winning margin to Campbell, they became the center of the dispute. Campbell’s lawyers argued that the “intent of the voter” in these cases had obviously been to vote for all the Democrats on the ticket except for Hunt (which would give Campbell the win), while Hunt’s lawyers argued that all of these ballots should be rejected since it was forbidden to vote for more than one candidate per office—and this would put Hunt ahead in the vote totals.

The matter had still not been resolved by January 1917 when the Governor was supposed to begin his term of office. So, with both parties still claiming victory, both Hunt and Campbell held inauguration ceremonies in which they each took the oath of office and declared themselves to be the Governor. When Campbell tried to enter the Governor’s Mansion, he was blocked by police, and set up his “administration” in his own house a few blocks away.

The result was paralysis, as the state legislature decided not to conduct any business that would require the Governor’s signature, the state treasury refused to accept checks signed by either claimant, and the Post Office declined to deliver mail to anybody addressed as “Governor”. 

In February, the State Supreme Court stepped in and issued an order that Campbell, having already been duly certified as the winner, should assume the powers of the office until all the legal issues had been adjudicated. Reluctantly, Hunt complied, and Campbell moved into the Governor’s Mansion.

Finally in December 1917, the State Supreme Court issued its final conclusion, ruling that the ballots had been specifically designed to prevent double-voting and that therefore the ballots in which voters had mistakenly voted for both a straight ticket and for a gubernatorial candidate should be rejected. That gave the electoral win to Hunt, by a margin of 43 votes. 

Campbell gave in and left the Governor’s Mansion, and Hunt now assumed office. But since the governor’s term at that time was just two years, Campbell had already served half of Hunt’s term of office, and Hunt found himself up for re-election just a year later. Over the next several elections, both Hunt and Campbell would be elected to serve terms as Governor. Though not again at the same time.

2 thoughts on “When Arizona Had Two Governors”

  1. As a general principle, any time you count a large number of entities, there is a margin of error. Now if you count votes, and the difference between the two candidates is smaller than the margin or error, it becomes pretty much impossible to say who won. (As I recall, this is what happened in 2000 in Florida with Bush and Gore?)

    It seems to me a democracy should actually make a rule specifically to deal with such a scenario. It may be more important for society to have a quick decision than a right one, at the price of months and months of leaderless acrimony.

    During the first democratic elections in South Africa one town ran into this problem: the two mayoral candidates had exactly the same number of votes. They solved the problem there and then by simply flipping a coin. Of course, that was during the general euphoria and accompanying goodwill that we all experienced at the time. Today, there would probably be blood in the streets.

    But it seems to me that it is in principle not a bad way to resolve this sort of problem: whoever is eventually declared the winner, half of the people are not going to get their wish, but months and months of acrimonious litigation and recounts and leaderless states probably do more harm to society than accidentally picking the candidate who actually lost by some trivial number of votes.

    Of course, it also underscores the importance of clear, unambiguous ballot papers. Here too such mess-ups are unnecessary: we can bloody well simply TEST the papers before the election to make sure average people will understand them.

    1. Alas, in the US, the entire electoral process has become weaponized by the lunatic fringe, and now it seems that every time a particular party loses, we will hear screams and cries of “fraud! fake elections! we actually won!”

      It makes “democracy” impossible. But I fear that is indeed the intent.

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