Recall elections played a pivotal role in Arizona statehood. President William Howard Taft, a former judge who was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, actually vetoed the enabling act that would have granted Arizona statehood in 1911 because the proposed state Constitution included a recall provision for judges.
State historian Marshall Trimble said judges commonly ordered striking miners back to work, and Arizona’s founding fathers wanted a way to counter the state’s powerful copper mining and railroad interests that had a great deal of control over the judiciary. So the framers included the recall provision, which was popular during the progressive era in American history.
The Constitution’s framers removed the recall provision in order to satisfy Taft, who was worried that it would be abused. Arizona gained statehood in 1912, and voters approved a ballot measure later that year allowing for the recall of judges and all elected officials.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Arizona is one of 19 states that allow for the recall of state-level officials, with at least 10 others allowing recalls for local officials. Recalls were part of a populist direct democracy movement of the progressive era.
But only eight states require specific grounds for recall, such as malfeasance or a failure to perform official duties. Arizona law requires organizers to list their reasons but places no requirement on those reasons. The only things organizers have to do is collect signatures equal to 25 percent of the total votes cast in the last election for the targeted office, which many say is a relatively high bar that keeps the system from being abused.
Despite the high importance that the state’s founders put on recall elections, they have rarely been used. The only state-level official to lose a recall election was Pinal County Superior Court Judge Stephen Abbey in 1924. Trimble said Abbey’s opponents filed a recall petition after he had been on the bench only 15 months, alleging he carried a loaded pistol under his robes and would frequently call county officials into his court to publicly berate them.
“He reportedly demanded that people show him proper respect, and if they didn’t, he threatened he would break every farmer and bank in Pinal County,” historical records of the recall election read. Added Trimble, “The judge had some serious mental problems.”
Abbey lost the recall and challenged the recall provision in the Arizona Constitution to the state Supreme Court, but the court upheld its constitutionality. According to records from the Pinal County Historical Society, believed to be from a Florence newspaper, Abbey moved to Chicago, where he failed the Illinois Bar exam. Chicago police later arrested a barefooted Abbey, who said his wife had left him, he’d run out of money and his shoes had become too tattered to wear.
“The judge interviewed Abbey and found him to have knowledge of the law. The judge pondered the case for several days and ordered Abbey locked up,” the records read.
Arizonans nearly saw their first gubernatorial recall when labor leader Cesar Chavez tried to oust Gov. Jack Williams over a 1972 farm labor bill that allowed employers to get a 10-day injunction against a strike at harvest time and required a secret ballot election before a union could speak as a bargaining agent for any group of farm workers.
Chavez’s group needed 103,000 signatures and turned in 176,000. However, county election officials determined 68,000 were invalid and Secretary of State Wesley Bolin tossed out 26,651 because they were collected by deputy voter registrars. Attorney General Gary Nelson had written an opinion that deputy registrars couldn’t legally circulate recall petitions to people they were registering to vote, knocking the number of valid signatures down to fewer than 82,000.
Nelson’s ruling, which kept the Williams recall off the ballot, was later overturned by the courts.