What would have seemed like an ordinary election became one of the most bizarre legal controversies in state history – all of it over the office of lieutenant governor.
Between 1907 and 1913, nine men had served either as governor or acting governor. In 1913, Gov. Joseph T. Robinson resigned after serving less than two months in office to serve in the U.S. Senate, leaving a fight between James K. Oldham and Marion Futrell over who would become governor. The need for a better line of succession to the governor’s office had become clear.
The legislature decided that it was time to follow the lead of most of the other states and establish a separate office of lieutenant governor to avoid this kind of chaos, offering an amendment to the state constitution. Arkansas briefly had a lieutenant governor from 1864 until 1874. The proposed Amendment 6 would face the judgment of voters in the September 1914 general election.
Arkansas voters were swept up in the nationwide movement demanding a greater voice for the average man in the political system. In 1910, voters enacted the Initiative and Referendum Amendment, giving them the power to have final approval over certain legislative acts and the power to put laws directly into effect.
The Arkansas Supreme Court was unimpressed by the new trend of voter referenda and tried to control it. In 1906, the court ruled that only three ballot issues could be placed before the voters in any one election. In one of the oddest rulings in state history, the court ruled that a majority vote was not necessarily a majority. The court argued that a popular referendum could only be approved if a majority of all voters in the election voted in favor of it.
Voters approved Amendment 6 by a vote of 46,567 (50.74 percent) to 45,206 (49.26 percent), a margin of only 1,300 votes. Of the 145,511 men who voted in the 1914 election, only 91,773 voted on the amendment question, or only 63 percent of the voters. Such behavior is not unusual for voters. In many elections, voters may only cast ballots for the most prominent elections, such as president or governor, and not vote for races lower on the ballot. As a result, the lieutenant governor question was left hanging for the next decade. The approved office was not approved.
The Supreme Court justices recused themselves from another election case in 1925, leading Gov. Tom Terral to appoint a special five-judge panel to hearBrickhouse v. Hill. The special court now ruled that a majority was a majority in a vote. The next year, the state Supreme Court ruled in Combs v. Gray that this ruling also applied to the lieutenant governor question.
Suddenly, Arkansas had a new executive office. Harvey Parnell, a state senator and quiet reformer from Chicot County, was thrust from near obscurity to the office of lieutenant governor in the 1926 election. After less than 14 months in office, the governor’s office was again vacated when Gov. John E. Martineau resigned to become a federal judge. And the state’s first lieutenant governor since Reconstruction found himself as the new governor of Arkansas.
Parnell would be elected to a full term in 1928 with 77 percent of the vote and serve as governor until 1933 after one of the strangest episodes in state political history.