Shenanigans at the polls

By Marshall Trimble

Irregularities at the polls on the frontier were common. Here are a few of my favorites: In 1870 in Yuma County, the local Native Americans were bribed to participate in the election by casting their votes. Clad in breechclouts and stovepipe hats, the latter, gifts from one of the candidates for services rendered, they would await their turn at the polls.

When the clerk asked their names, the Natives replied, “My name is O’Toole, Hooligan, Malarkey” or some other such Irish name they’d memorized. It was said that some 400 ineligible voters of both sexes turned out to vote. At the time, neither American Indian nor women were allowed to vote.

In the 1880 political election in Pima County, Republican Bob Paul was running against Democrat Charlie Shibell for sheriff of Pima County. Paul had a good reputation as a tough lawman, while Shibell was more of an administrator with a laissez-faire attitude toward criminal behavior. A couple of well-known outlaws in the extreme eastern part of the county, Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo, managed to get themselves named election officials.

With only 50 eligible voters in the district, Shibell received 123 votes and Paul only got one. Paul lost the election, but an investigation of the results later declared him the winner. By that time the new county of Cochise had been established, leaving the outlaws, aka cowboys, with a new county sheriff, a glad-handing polecat named Johnny Behan. Behan turned a blind eye to their nefarious behavior.

Sandy Huntington, a scion of the famous California family, was exiled to Arizona because he was powerfully addicted to ardent spirits. He worked at various odd jobs in Prescott, and his hero was Yavapai County Sheriff George Ruffner. He hung around the sheriff’s office running errands. It was campaign season, and something Ruffner hated to do was campaign. While the other candidates were busy making long-winded speeches, when it was his turn, he’d step up to the podium and say, “I’m George Ruffner. I’m runnin’ for sheriff,” then he’d sit down.

One election, Ruffner was running against a particularly tough candidate. Huntington was well educated, and he decided to help during the polling by volunteering to read the ballots to those voters who couldn’t read — and there were many. He’d say the names of the candidates and then ask for whom they wished to vote. If they replied “George Ruffner,” Huntington would say “Just mark an X in that little box by his name.”

If the voter said, “I ain’t votin’ for that scallywag Ruffner, I’m voting for the other guy.” he’d say, “Let’s get rid of that scallywag Ruffner. We’ll cross him out by putting a big X in that little box next to his name.”

Ruffner served several terms as Yavapai County sheriff. In 1903, he won a funeral home in a faro game at the famous Palace Saloon on Whiskey Row. From that day hence folks claimed Sheriff Ruffner could offer taxpayers a package deal: He could shoot the bad guy, embalm ’em and bury ‘em, all for the price of one. 

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