Made of Sterner Stuff: Honoring Arizona’s History as a Bastion of Democracy

By Abigail Knox.

In light of recent controversies and conspiracy theories, Arizona’s legislature is working through a flood of election-related bills, from changes to polling procedures to constitutional amendments regarding direct democracy provisions. In the spirit of Arizona’s 110th statehood day, a look at our history reminds us of our state’s character and provides us with insight for the future.

The Constitutional Convention and Direct Democracy*

Arizona’s journey to statehood was heavily influenced by progressive and populist movements. Democrat George W. P. Hunt was elected as President of Arizona’s constitutional convention. It was clear that Hunt and his progressive colleagues were passionate about direct democracy. Among the many measures the convention sought to memorialize were the initiative, referendum, and recall. These provisions reserve power to the people; they enable the electorate to create and reject laws independently of the legislature and remove elected officials by vote. These principles resonated strongly with many Arizonans, and the initiative and referendum were approved for the state constitution. However, the issue of recall was fraught with controversy.

Hunt and the progressive Democrats supported judicial recall—that judges could be removed by a petition and later vote of the electorate. Republicans and conservative Democrats were staunchly opposed. Perhaps most importantly, President Taft had made it clear that he despised the idea, saying that judicial recall was “so pernicious in effect, so destructive of the independence of the judiciary . . . so injurious to the cause of free government that I must disapprove [a] constitution containing it.” Many feared that including the provision would cost Arizona statehood. Even so, the convention included the provisions for initiative, referendum, and judicial recall, and adopted the constitution on December 9, 1910. But the document still had to be ratified by the voters.

The campaign to ratify the constitution quickly gained momentum. Groups like the Arizona Statehood League began to canvass the state to inform voters and gain their approval at the polls. Local newspapers flooded with editorials: “The Constitution is RIGHT. It is representative. It is for the people and against the ‘Interests.’” Famed orator and attorney William Jennings Bryan visited the state two days before the election, voicing support for the constitution that some considered radically populist. “Do not distrust the wisdom and intelligence of your people. Your constitution makes the government a government of the people and by the people.” The constitution passed with flying colors: 12,584 to 3,920 (a three-quarter majority).

But Taft was a man of his word. Upon receiving House Joint Resolution 14, which began the process of admitting Arizona into the union, Taft vetoed the measure, citing his disapproval of judicial recall. The same day, a Senator introduced a new resolution that excluded the judicial recall from Arizona’s constitution. This new resolution passed in Congress and President Taft signed the bill. In the months that followed, Arizona’s voters elected Hunt as the first governor and amended the constitution to remove the recall of judges, consistent with President Taft’s wishes. And on Valentine’s Day, 1912, at 10:02½ A.M., President Taft welcomed Arizona to the Union.

You may think you’ve knocked us out

With your little veto clout,

Billy Taft, Billy Taft.


But must think us awful tame

If at that we’d quit the game

And in bondage still remain,

Billy Taft, Billy Taft.


We are made of sterner stuff

And will surely call your bluff,

Billy Taft, Billy Taft.


We will tolerate your gall

And surrender our recall

Till safe within the statehood stall,

Billy Taft, Billy Taft.


Then we’ll fairly drive you daft

With the ring of our horse-laugh,

Billy Taft, Billy Taft.


As we joyously re-install

By the vote of one and all,

That ever-glorious recall,

Billy Taft, Billy Taft.

Published by Colonel Thomas F. Weedin of the Blade Tribune in Florence, Arizona

Nine months after gaining statehood, in Arizona’s first general election as a state, the voters approved an amendment reinstating the recall of the judiciary. It passed by an 80% majority.

Getting Out the Vote

The state’s first general election was also the first opportunity to exercise the power of the initiative. Suffragists like Frances Munds traveled the state gathering signatures and rousing support. The petition reached enough signatures for women’s suffrage to be placed on the ballot. The voters, all men of course, overwhelmingly approved the initiative, a full eight years before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

While Arizona may have been among the first ten states to grant women the right to vote, Native Americans were officially disenfranchised until 1948, and people of color faced legal discrimination at the polls until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 1970, the Supreme Court struck down literacy tests in any federal, state or local election. Arizona did not repeal its literacy test requirement until 1972. But barriers to voting and representation didn’t end there. In 1988, the United States brought a successful case against Arizona for its discrimination against Native American voters. Even now, despite how far we’ve come, our voting procedures may have a disparate effect on voters of minority communities.

Current Proposed Legislation

Arizona House Bill 2596 would completely overhaul election procedures, including requiring ballots to be hand-counted, removing early voting, and disallowing voters to cast ballots anywhere but their home precinct. It would also give the legislature the power to set aside election results if they believe there was fraud or other irregularities. Speaker of the House, Rusty Bowers, made a procedural move that will effectively kill the bill at the committee level. The sponsor of HB2596, Representative John Fillmore of Apache Junction, said in a legislative hearing, “we need to get back to 1958-style voting.” Even if the bill is unlikely to proceed, this attitude marks a shift in the trajectory. Since statehood, Arizona has slowly but surely increased access to the ballot box, not limited it.

Arizona is one of the fastest-growing states in the U.S., but nearly one-third of the population is concentrated in only two of the fifteen counties. One resolution currently moving through the state Senate would affect how signatures are gathered for statewide initiatives. Rather than requiring petition signatures from ten percent of the state’s voters, this bill would require signatures from ten percent of each legislative district in the state. While the resolution’s supporters see this as a way to include voices from more rural parts of the state, many see this as an unnecessary burden and a way to make direct democracy increasingly more difficult for the electorate.

Additionally, the Voter Protection Act, enacted in 1998, prevents the legislature from changing a law passed by initiative unless the change both “furthers the purpose” and obtains a three-quarter vote. On this year’s ballot, the legislature asks voters to change a part of this law. Some see this as an attempt to shift power away from the people and to the legislature, in contravention of Hunt’s progressive vision.

On this day 110 years ago, the people of Arizona were seen as radical, stubborn, and individualistic. Those characterizations probably still ring true today. We have a lot to be proud of in Arizona’s history. But we also have an opportunity to learn from our past failures and shortcomings as our young state grows.

*Much of the history and quoted material comes from “The Birth of Arizona, The Baby State” by J. Morris Richards, published by the Arizona State Department of Education in 1940 and made available by the University of Arizona library.

"Arizona Capitol building" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0