One campaign appealed to a judge, contesting election results that weren't returned in its candidate's favor. Ballots were recounted, and the case was ultimately dismissed by the court.
Though it may sound an awful lot like 2020's continually drawn-out election happenings, I'm actually describing a front page story from the Feb. 25, 1937, edition of the Spirit Lake Beacon. The parallels of course are somewhat obvious, and that's why I found it an interesting read — particularly for a week such as this. It just so happened our little community was home to election aftermath akin to the recent clouds of dust that were kicked up in several courts across the country. Call him a trend setter, or say he was ahead of the curve by 64 years. Either way, a local lawyer tried to argue in court that votes had been illegally counted for his opponent in the 1936 race for Dickinson County Attorney.
Feel free to insert your own adage about repeating the past.
The Nov. 5, 1936, Beacon announced the winner from Election Day
That year, Democratic candidate Clifford E. White was running against Republican Virginia Bedell for the office of Dickinson County Attorney — and remember, women had just been granted the right to vote in 1920. Though White won nine of Dickinson County's voting precincts, Bedell managed to eke out a victory by winning only the other four. Initial tallies had her ahead by just 27 votes on Election Day, and a canvas of the vote by the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors later that month pulled her margin even tighter to just 16 votes.
Virginia Bedell (center) was also a member of the 1912-1913 Spirit Lake High School girls basketball team when she was still Virginia Price. (Photo submitted)
Her win was also a bit of a historical moment. The paper said Bedell was the only woman in the state to be elected as county attorney that cycle. White called for a recount within a week, according to the Nov. 12, 1936, edition of the Milford Mail. The paper quoted him as saying "due to the fact that election officials in some of the precincts worked continuously for 29 hours, it was humanly impossible to avoid error, and I feel justified that a recount should be made."
The Nov. 12, 1936, Milford Mail quoted White as he called for a recount.
So, the Election Contest Board recounted the ballots — same winner. White contested the results in court before the month's end. He claimed, among other things, that canvassers had illegally counted votes for Bedell and that election judges at the polls had refused to count votes for White while also improperly counting votes for Bedell. White's evidence – or lack thereof – was presented to a district court on Feb. 24, 1937.
"The taking of evidence as to the preservation of the ballots has consumed the entire time since the appeal has been started," the Beacon archives said.
It didn't take long for the judge to make a decision whether the case should proceed any further.
White's accusations were outlined in the Nov. 26, 1936, Beacon
According to the Beacon, the ballots had been kept in cloth sacks — tied and sealed — on top of girders near the ceiling inside a vault between the county auditor's office and the county treasurer's office since election day. And, remember, we're talking the original county courthouse — those two offices aren't next to each other in today's building. But, since the vault was open during business hours and used by some to pass between the two offices, it was questioned whether they had possibly been tampered with at some point.
Just stop and imagine that. Again, it's 1937 — at best, we're talking about paper, go-behind-the-curtain-and-pull-the-literal-lever ballots that had been sealed in sacks on top of ceiling-height girders where not one but two county offices could see them. Somehow, I don't imagine Mrs. Myrtle May Stallwigg scaling the vault in her floral print dress and slouch hat (any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental), pulling down a bag, unsealing the ballots and altering at least 17 ballots without any of the staff in the recorder's office or the treasurer's office noticing her.
The Feb. 25, 1937, Beacon detailed the ruling in White's lawsuit.
Yet, when the court reconvened the morning of Feb. 25, 1937, White's lawyer said, "It is impossible for the contestant to show that there was no reasonable possibility of some unauthorized person to have had reasonable access to the ballots," according to that day's Beacon. He then asked the court to render a verdict — in fact the archives said he rested his case on that statement.
Now, if White and his attorney had more than an accusation of tampering, I'm sure the court might have considered the matter further. As it stood — the matter ended there. Bedell's attorney moved the case be dismissed, and that's exactly what the judge did.
"Thus endeth the county attorneyship contest," the Beacon printed that same afternoon.
Recently, of course, some are claiming the results of the presidential election back in November were altered in some fashion and provided an illegitimate win to president-elect Joe Biden rather than incumbent President Donald Trump. The issue was brought up in Pennsylvania's Third Circuit Court of Appeals by the Trump campaign, and a ruling was filed Nov. 27. Trump-appointed Judge Stephanos Bibas said in the ruling that the campaign was attempting to turn a state case into a federal one by making the claim of discrimination at the polls.
"But its alchemy cannot transmute lead into gold," Bibas wrote, adding the campaign never alleged to the court that ballots cast for Trump were treated any worse than ballots cast for Biden. "Calling something discrimination does not make it so."
Fast forward to Friday, and the United States Supreme Court decided it isn't going to even hear a Texas lawsuit aimed at stopping not just Pennsylvania from casting its electoral votes for Biden, but also Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. A single page order filed by the court said Texas basically didn't show there was a legally viable cause for the case to be taken up by the nine justices — three of whom were appointed by Trump himself, as well as two more who were appointed by other Republican presidents.
I only bring this whole situation up in order to show that our courts have been consistent. It's not enough to cry conspiracy and expect a judge to simply take the matter directly to trial. A court's actions and decisions hinge on evidence more than some might believe they do. That's how it worked for us at the local level in 1937. That's how it worked for Pennsylvania at the state level in November. And that's how it worked for our president at the federal level just last week.
Oddly enough, it seems like lawsuits that insist there has been some form of political unfairness actually end up showing us how fair things really are. Hopefully, we can all take at least some comfort in that.