SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Ketchikan's First State Election Was All Tied Up



September 18, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - Once upon a time, Alaska was a very Democratic state, politically speaking.

In fact, when Alaska statehood was being debated in the mid 1950s, one of the strongest arguments against granting statehood was from the national GOP. Most of Alaska's political leaders were Democrats and the Republicans were not interested in creating two new US Senate seats that would probably automatically go to their political opponents.

The situation was solved when it was decided to allow Hawaii into the union at the same time. In those days, Hawaii was considered a "Republican" state. Today, those roles are completely reversed.

jpg W. K. Boardman

Waving a farewell from the staircase is W.K. Boardman, secretary of the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce, during the boarding of the inaugural Flight of Pan Am DC-6 Clipper service to Annette Island Airport, January 1954. The plane was trying for a record southbound trip. The pre-inaugural flight of a PAA DC6-B knocked 52 minutes off the regular flight time between Seattle and Annette Island. Flying at 17000 feet, the 4-engined pressurized plane made the flight in 2 hours 53 minute Regular flight lime in a DC-4 is 3 hours 45 minutes. Passengers on the courtesy jaunt were 40 newspapermen and company and city officials. The flight continued to Whitehorse and Fairbanks to establish a new record non-stop Fairbanks to Seattle flight.
Photographer: Paulu T. Saari ; Donor: Paulu T. Saari, KM
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

When the US Congress approved Alaska Statehood in the summer of 1958, it set the stage for a statewide election that did indeed put mostly Democrats in office. The first state Governor Bill Egan was a Democrat. So where the first two US Senators, Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening. The first US Representative Ralph Rivers was, you guessed it, a Democrat.

In the new State House, 34 of the 40 members were Democrats. In the new State Senate, 18 of the 20 seats were held by Democrats.. Not surprisingly, the first state representatives from Ketchikan, Ray Roady and Oral Freeman, were Democrats.

So was the first Ketchikan area State Senator, W.O. "Bo" Smith. But not without a little help from the other Democrats in the State Senate.

The election for the first state Senator from Ketchikan and Prince of Wales ended in a tie. That's when the fun started.

The campaign for Senate between W.O. "Bo" Smith and William K. "Bill" Boardman was a very contentious one.

Smith had been born in New Mexico in 1907, Boardman was born in Iowa in 1915, but both had lived in Alaska for many, many years by 1958.

Both men were well known in the community. Smith was a fisherman who also had strong family ties on Prince of Wales Island. Boardman was an insurance salesman who was also prominent in the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce.
jpg W.O. (Bo) Smith

Boardman had served in the 1953 Territorial Legislature. Smith had been a delegate to the 1956 State Constitutional Convention. Both men were very active in local party politics as well.

Judging from the large newspaper advertisements that ran in the Ketchikan Daily News prior to the Nov. 25, 1958 election, the election was hard fought.

Supporters of both men accused each other of significant "mudslinging" and forcefully attacked each other's records. There were also quite a few ads attacking previous attack ads and bemoaning the generally "negative" nature of the campaign.

On November 25, voters went to the polls. The excitement of electing Alaska's first state government drew nearly 80 percent of the registered voters to the polls in the Ketchikan area.

Although the early statewide results presaged the eventual Democratic sweep, the results for Senate District B which included Ketchikan, parts of Prince of Wales Island, and Hyder, were slow in coming.

First, Boardman took a slight lead, then Smith went ahead after the absentee votes were tallied.

On December 3rd, the Daily News reported that Boardman had a four vote lead with all but one precinct (Hyder) counted. The Hyder votes were delayed because they had to travel by Canadian surface mail to Vancouver B.C. and then be delivered to Seattle before being flown to Juneau for official tabulation.

The next day, the Daily News crowned Boardman the winner by two votes 1,955 to 1,953. But Smith immediately sought a recount.

On December 6, the state declared that a recount showed both men had tied with 1,953 votes each.

On December 18th, both men agreed to settle the matter by drawing lots. The drawing would take place at 9:15 pm at the Elks Lodge and would be simulcast on both KATV cable television and KTKN radio.

"Three persons, one representing each candidate, and a neutral individual will fill 49 capsules with slips of paper," the Daily News reported. "Forty eight slips will be blank, the 49th will say 'winner.' The two would-be senators will draw alternately until one of them extracts the winning slip."

The election drawing took place as part of "Project West Coast" a telethon benefit for "needy families in west coast towns" that were hard hit by a poor fishing season in 1958, according to the December 20th Ketchikan Daily News. The project was spearheaded by the Jaycees, Jayettes, Emblem Club and the Elks Lodge.

The next night, at the beginning of the telethon. Boardman won the coin flip and chose to go first. He reached into the container with the 49 capsules (in honor of Alaska's status as the 49th state). He pulled out the "winner" slip on his first draw and the election was settled.

Only it wasn't.

Two days later, Felix Toner, the chairman of the Alaska Democratic Central Committee, announced that the tie breaking draw was "not binding" and that the final decision was actually up to the State Senate.

"Toner pointed to the rules provision of the state constitution, which says that each house of the legislature 'is the judge of the election and qualifications of its members,'" The Daily News reported on Dec. 21st. "He said it was possible the senate may choose to ignore the result of the drawing and could pick the man of its choice to be the winner of the senate seat."

The attention now turned toward the state legislature which would meet for the first time on January 25, 1959.

There was one brief diversion, the second week in January, when newly elected Gov. Egan ordered the ballots from the Craig area to be recounted. It would later be claimed - by Smith - that the recount showed he should have won the election by four votes. But when the legislature began organizing the week of the 25th, the state declared that the race was still a "tie."

Both Smith and Boardman went to Juneau to await the final decision.

The Daily News - known for the strong Republican leanings of its publishers, the Charles family - reported that Smith would probably be elected.

"After selecting a president pro tem, a committee will likely be appointed to review the Boardman-Smith recount," the Daily News reported on January 24th. "It would then rest with the committee to recommend which candidate had the strongest claim to the vacant seat. Unless the recount clearly indicates a margin in favor of Boardman, the speculation is that Smith will be seated."

The next day, Boardman assumed a seat in the senate for the opening festivities while Smith watched from the gallery behind him. Boardman was then asked to "step aside" as the issue was placed in the hands of a newly formed senate committee.

Boardman was allowed to read a 300-word prepared statement which read, in part "I hold a properly issued and authenticate certificate of election" noting that the election tie had been "broken" by the drawing of lots in Ketchikan on December 21st.

"I presume that justice will be done and that a fair and judicial determination of the recount findings will be the result of this proceeding."

Smith was also allowed to present a statement - although he was not allowed to read it before the senate.

"At the time of the drawing of lots, the written agreement entered into between Mr. Boardman and myself provided that the loser of the drawing would retain all rights to seek whatever recourse might be open to him," Smith wrote.

Both Boardman and Smith agreed that the election tally was tied, but both contended that flaws and mistakes in the election process had invalidated results that could favor each man.

The senate appointed a panel to determine whether the results had been accurately tabulated. It consisted of four Democrats - Thomas Stewart of Juneau, George McNabb of Fairbanks, Frank Peratrovich of Klawock and Eben Hopson of Barrow - and one Republican, John Coghill of Nenana.

The committee spent several days going over the results and the reviewing the ballots that had been counted and the ones that had been tossed out for "technical" reasons. According to elections supervisor Mrs. W.L. Grisham, more than 400 ballots had technical faults.

As the committee worked, the Daily News opined that the result was inevitable.

"The senate committee investigating the Boardman-Smith tie vote apparently is going to come up with Democrat Smith having two more votes than Republican Bill Boardman," publisher Bud Charles wrote in his January 27th "Observations at Random" column. "The committee is composed of four Democats and one Republican. The outcome of the investigation in favor of Bo Smith was a foregone conclusion."

Charles went on to write that the "majority party fears that Boardman will throw a little sand in the gears during the session. While he is a tireless worker and keen of mind, we doubt that any one man could whatever course the legislature will follow."

Charles also noted that "there is little room for sportsmanship in politics" but then suggested that Smith should accept his seat, his "trophy," but then hand it over to Boardman, whom Charles felt was the rightful winner.

That - of course - didn't happen. The next day, January 28th, the Daily News reported that the committee had found Smith to be the winner by two votes. It would now be up to the Senate, which had a 17-2 Democratic edge to either confirm or reject the committee report.

Not surprisingly, the committee was not unanimous in its decision. Coghill issued a "minority" report that charged that ballot procedures were not followed properly in Metlakatla and that all the ballots from that precinct - most of which went for Smith - should be discarded.

The senate then recessed for several hours to allow the members to digest the two reports.

Then the body voted 17-2, along party lines, to seat Smith.

"With the matter settled, Boardman greeted Smith with a handshake outside the senate chambers and said 'My best to you. Now I'm going home," the Daily News reported on January 29th.

The election was all over, but - of course - not the shouting.

Charles - in his February 3rd "Observations at Random" column, decried the "multiple platoon system" that the Democrats had used to deny Boardman a Senate seat.

In a letter to the editor in that same newspaper, Smith defended the results of the election. He said that basing the final result on a drawing would have deprived the citizens of their right to vote and that voiding the entire results of an election based a few errors by precinct judges would also wipe out the public's right to elect its own officials.

There is no evidence that Boardman ever chose to publicly discuss the results of the disputed 1958 election.

Smith continued to serve in the State Senate until 1965 and continued to fish until the early 1970s when he sold his boat and moved south. He died in Auburn, Washington on September 12, 1987.

Boardman got the last laugh of sorts. He was elected to the state house in 1961 and served there until 1970. The last two years he was Speaker of the House and literally "crossed the aisle" to marry Democratic Rep. Genie Chance of Anchorage.

Boardman eventually moved south as well. He died on March 18, 1993 in Palm Springs, California.



Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2006

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