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Pima's 1884 election the most crooked in history

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The way we were

Pima's 1884 election the most crooked in history

Our most-recent Arizona elections will be remembered as the most suspenseful in decades, with some races remaining unresolved for weeks. Despite baseless and irresponsible recriminations from some quarters, the system went smoothly.

This stands in contrast with the relatively unsophisticated elections in territorial days, where irregularities and outright fraud were common. One election in Pima County in 1884 was not resolved for nearly two years and stands out as among the most crooked and disputed electoral contests in our history.

County and territorial elections in those days were governed by a law passed in 1877. Under this law, the names of all eligible voters in a given county, namely male citizens (exclusive of Indians or soldiers) over the age of 21, were written in a "Great Register." Voters were expected to write by hand the names and offices of their choices on a paper ballot, which was deposited in a ballot box at the designated precinct polling place. A system of precinct-level election inspectors and judges appointed by the Board of Supervisors were responsible for checking names against the Great Register, observing the balloting, and maintaining the security of the ballot box.

Almost immediately, Arizonans recognized shortcomings with the law and called for changes. It was pointed out, for instance, that the Great Register was not broken down by precinct, allowing a voter to vote multiple times by misidentifying himself in multiple precincts. Distances made this sort of fraud difficult, but it pointed out a potential problem. Another opportunity for mischief was the do-it-yourself hand-written ballot, which was easily spoiled by misspellings or poor penmanship, or outright forged. Reformers called for precinct-level registration and the "Australian Ballot," namely, a ballot pre-printed with the names of party nominees distributed at the polling place and filled out in the relative privacy of a voting booth. Despite efforts to address these issues in each session of the Territorial Legislature, the only change made was a law allowing women to vote in School Board elections. Other fixes would have to wait.

The territorial and county election of 1884 included a breathlessly contested race for sheriff between Republican incumbent Robert H. "Bob" Paul and Democratic challenger Eugene Shaw. The duties of the sheriff in those days extended well beyond law enforcement, and the potential of patronage made the stakes in such contests even higher. Paul, running for his third two-year term, was a larger-than-life figure who was described as "powerful, fearless and very lucky." His detractors, however, notably the Arizona Star, saw him as too cozy with "monopolists" such as the Southern Pacific Railroad and Wells-Fargo, who was once his employer. Shaw, the "people's candidate" who had run and narrowly lost once before, was described even by his supporters as a "simple-minded good-natured cowboy" who was running for office because he was broke.

After a spirited campaign complete with accusations of dirty tricks and strong-arm tactics on the part of Paul and Southern Pacific, Shaw carried the day in November by a narrow margin, 861 to 854. This number was not consistent with what was reported by Paul's election observers. Having been the target of attempted election fraud at the hands of no less than Ike Clanton and John Ringo in his first election in 1880, Paul prepared to challenge the results.

On December 29, Paul, represented by Southern Pacific attorney and newly elected Republican legislator C.C. Stephens, went to court with allegations of irregularities in three precincts: San Xavier, Tanque Verde and Tucson, where election officials were largely appointed Democrats.

These charges included forged ballots and votes by non-citizens and electors who never existed. Counting was sloppy. In San Xavier, ballots were kept unsecured in a cigar box. In Tucson, an election judge was so drunk that he nearly spoiled the ballots.

Shaw's attorney countered by charging that Paul's campaign had engaged in bribery. Called to the stand to address an accusation that he had paid two Mexican-American men to vote for Paul, Republican Party stalwart Sam Hughes answered "I did not do it. I could have got plenty of votes for two dollars if I wanted to buy." This hardly seemed like a denial.

On January 2, 1885, the court ruled in favor of Paul, calling for a recount. In particular, the judge found that the voting in Tanque Verde "reeked of rottenness." William S. Oury, longtime Democratic Party boss and chairman of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, who owned a ranch at Tanque Verde and had been implicated in such mischief before, was held responsible for the irregularities there. In the end, Paul won the recount, 863 to 843.

Paul resumed his duties as sheriff. He pursued bandits and helped settle a potentially bloody dispute between Anglo settlers and Tohono O'odham villagers at Pan Tak west of Tucson, unaware that the issue of his election was not yet resolved. During the counting back in November 1884, Harry Barron, a Tucson barber and Paul ally, suggested that they break into the grocery store where the ballots were stored and alter them in the incumbent sheriff's favor. Paul refused, and the issue was seemingly dropped.

Stories persisted that Paul's allies had tampered with the ballot box, but nothing would come of these until William K. Meade, Democrat and personal enemy of Paul, would take office as the new United States Marshal for Arizona. In September, Meade convened a grand jury composed of Democratic partisans to investigate the rumors. By the end of the year, Barron and two other Paul allies had been indicted, accused of altering ballots. Barron, fearing that he could go to prison, approached Shaw's attorneys looking to make a deal.

In March, 1886, federal Judge William H. Barnes, another Democratic presidential appointee, ordered that the case of Paul v. Shaw be reopened. Paul became concerned, as the deck seemed stacked against him. Also, there may have been something to Barron's tale of ballot tampering, whether Paul was an active participant or not. If the case went against him, Paul would be forced to return his salary, some $11,000, which would have financially ruined him. Paul went to Shaw's attorneys to negotiate a way out. On July 9, Paul agreed to relinquish his office to Shaw and would get to keep what he had earned.

Shaw was re-elected to a second term a few months later. Though there were again irregularities in the balloting, these were not thought to affect the outcome. The affable Shaw proved to be a competent though unspectacular sheriff. He fell ill and died in office in 1887. Paul went on to serve as United States Marshal for Arizona from 1890 to 1893, after Republicans again took power in Washington.

Though the whole bitter contest led to further calls for reform, that wouldn't happen until 1891 when the "Australian Ballot" was instituted in Arizona.

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