Alaska Life

How clashing voting ordinances caused municipal election turmoil and signaled Anchorage’s growth from bucolic town to big city

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

The 1947 Anchorage municipal election began like any election before it. Before the results could be finalized, accusations of electoral improprieties, primarily lax voter registrations, rolled in. The resulting debate devolved into a yearlong circus marked by lawsuits and resignations. More than just a forgotten episode of local political drama, the 1947 Anchorage municipal election illustrates how voting in Alaska changed over the first half of the 20th century, especially in Anchorage, which had grown much since its humble origins as a railroad construction hub.

The Anchorage City Council first addressed the structure and rules for local elections in February 1921 with the 17th city ordinance. Judging from earlier ordinances, elections were not the highest priority for the first council members. Previous ordinances included a curfew for children under 16 years old from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. (fifth ordinance), a ban on curtains in public establishments (sixth ordinance), a ban on cattle roaming city streets (seventh ordinance), and clearing snow from sidewalks (11th ordinance). The curtain ban targeted businesses like pool halls and cigar rooms that often had illegal sidelines like prostitution and bootlegging.

That 1921 election ordinance contained 50 sections on various election minutiae but nothing on registration. Section 18 stated, “any person desiring to vote shall give his name to the judge at the election, and his residence, if required, and sign the poll book.” If challenged, voters had to sign an affidavit affirming they were 21 years old, an American citizen, a resident of Alaska for the preceding year and a resident of Anchorage for the preceding six months.

Voting in Alaska then was not as sedate as it is today. Elections were haphazardly officiated and sometimes devolved into rowdy, alcohol-fueled parties, despite Alaska’s status as a dry territory. Candidates personally canvassed for additional voters, guiding or even driving them to polling stations. Some candidates stooped to bribery in close contests, offering voters money, gifts, or booze for their favor. In the 1918 election to decide Alaska’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, the loser, James Wickersham, complained to Congress that associates of the winner, Charles Sulzer, had coerced or paid prostitutes to vote.

The number of eligible voters was also low, especially in the more transient towns. Of course, few non-white residents were allowed to vote. In the November 1920 Anchorage election, the first local election, only 458 people voted. Area magistrates would have been familiar with many of the voters.

In 1924, the city council finally passed an ordinance that addressed registration requirements, the 51st city ordinance. It stated, “no person shall be entitled to vote at any municipal election who is not registered according to the provisions of this ordinance; registration shall be prima facie evidence of the right of any person to vote, but said person may be challenged and required to establish a right to vote in the manner provided in Ordinance 17.”

However, Ordinance 51 focused entirely on registration and no other part of the election process. Most importantly, it did not explicitly repeal or adapt any portion of Ordinance 17, which allowed unregistered voters to wait until polling day to register. Did Ordinance 51 cancel the conflicting sections of Ordinance 17, as might seem logical? Or did Ordinance 51 add to Ordinance 17 without any cancellation, as indicated by the lack of such language? Given a lack of other instructions, both positions could be argued in good faith.

Again, Anchorage during the 1920s and 1930s was an isolated, bucolic little town. In the 1930s, the police chief kept a list of people to awaken in case of northern lights. For more than 20 years, no one noticed the contradictory rules on voter registration.

That version of Anchorage disappeared as waves of newcomers in the 1940s quickly and vastly outnumbered the longtime residents. These new arrivals eventually wanted to vote, causing a sudden rise in the voter rolls. If anything, it is surprising that it took until 1947 for criticisms over the registration process to arise.

On April 1, 1947, voters headed to the polls, with late registrations repeatedly delaying the line. Out of the record 1,738 that voted that day, 653 individuals registered at the polls rather than in advance, in seeming violation of Ordinance 51. In the tightest outcome, Linfous McGee grabbed the final council seat by one vote over attorney Bill Olson, who was generous in defeat. Olson said, “I feel that the people of Anchorage have by their vote of confidence elected L. McGee to office of councilman and whether or not he was victorious by one vote or 1000 votes is immaterial.”

The day after the election, three of the losing council candidates, not including Bill Olson, submitted a petition to city attorney Ed Arnell. The petitioners claimed that at least four voters had registered with false information and, on that basis, demanded to see the registration books. Arnell refused, counterarguing that any such errors were minimal. He told the Anchorage Daily Times, “Even if one or five or 10 votes were found, it would not necessarily destroy the validity of the election.” He further noted that until there was evidence of systemic violations, the council had to accept the results pending any challenges and recounts.

The petitioners responded by hiring lawyers. It was these lawyers who first identified the contradictions of Ordinances 17 and 51. The city council ignored them, the first failure to act in what would become a defining trait. This inaction prompted the United States Attorney for the District of Alaska, Ray Plummer, to get involved.

On April 7, just six days after the election, Plummer promised to file suit against the mayor, Francis Bowden, and the other election winners, seeking to invalidate the election results. Per Plummer, “the election of April 1 is invalid and void because 653 votes were cast and counted in violation of Ordinance 51, requiring registration.” The actual filing had to wait until the mayor and new council were sworn in, thus granting them the opportunity to respond to the allegations of impropriety officially.

The mayor and council were defended by city attorney Arnell, who said city officials had been wise to ignore Ordinance 51′s stricter registration requirements. Arnell declared, “The city council can’t deprive any person of the right to vote, providing that person fulfills the rules set out by the territorial law.” He added, “The territory can’t impose such legislation, and neither can the city council since it exceeds the expressed mandate of Congress. By itself, Ordinance 51 is void.” In other words, per Arnell, Ordinance 51 was unconstitutional.

At the least, it had long been the custom in Anchorage to allow voters to register at the polls. If this had been in doubt, it was proven before the trial could begin. The first judge assigned to the case, Anthony Dimond, the Dimond Boulevard and Dimond High School namesake, recused himself as he had been one of the 653 voters who registered at the polls.

On April 16, Judge Joseph Kehoe ruled in favor of Arnell and upheld the election results. Asked by Plummer for the basis of the decision, Kehoe replied, “I think, in my opinion, it is based upon two grounds: First the lack of power in the city to make such an ordinance; also and I am impressed by the fact that there has been no repeal of Ordinance 17,” the first local election regulation. However, Judge Kehoe offered no further details as to why Ordinance 51 was unconstitutional.

Plummer appealed the case, and it was placed on the docket of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco for February 1948. Reasonable observers might assume that the council used the intervening 10 months to tighten their election regulations, clear the apparent contradiction between the election ordinances, or repeal Ordinance 51 entirely given Arnell’s interpretation of its legality. Instead, the council waited until shortly before the hearing to even debate such actions.

As might be expected, the Court of Appeals quickly ruled that not only had Judge Kehoe insufficiently supported his opinion, but that Ordinance 51 was inherently constitutional. The case was sent back to Anchorage for a new hearing under Kehoe. With the validity of Ordinance 51 upheld, the mayor and city council were in a tricky situation. The new trial, which they would surely lose, would not take place until after that year’s municipal election. With few options, the mayor and council ceded the victory to Plummer.

By that time, Mayor Bowden had already indicated that he would not seek reelection, and one of the councilmen defendants had resigned. In early March, the remaining council members with terms lasting through 1949 also resigned. Thus, city residents had the opportunity to select an entirely new municipal government that April.

Point proven, Plummer withdrew his case and told the Daily Times, “If nothing else has been accomplished, the action has impressed upon some minds that city ordinances pertaining to registration in municipal elections were enacted for the purpose of establishing an orderly system of voting and not for the purpose of being ignored.”

That April, election officials followed the rule of Ordinance 51. The need to register in advance was widely and repeatedly publicized, including banners on the front page of the Daily Times. Voters who were not registered as of two days before the election could not participate. And in this way, a benchmark was passed. Anchorage was no longer an unimportant railroad hub where everyone knew each other but a real city.

• • •

Key sources:

“Arnell Says Ordinance ‘Unconstitutional.’” Anchorage Daily Times, April 15, 1947, 1, 8.

“Court of Appeals Weighs Legality of City Election.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 3, 1948, 1, 8.

“District Attorney to Ask Court to Throw Out Election Results.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 7, 1947, 1.

“Group Seeks Way to Challenge Election.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 5, 1947, 1.

“New City Election Law on Council Agenda.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 3, 1948, 1.

“Order Municipal Election Case Re-Heard.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 28, 1948, 1.

“Plummer Promises to Drop Election Suit.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 9, 1948, 1, 3.

“Record Vote Returns Bowden to Office.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 2, 1947, 1, 3.

“Regular Meeting of City Council.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 18, 1924, 6.

“Trio Asks to Examine Registration Books.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 3, 1947, 1, 3.

David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.