Do Alaskans want to modify constitution that has served us well for 47 years?

Posted: Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Editor's Note: The League of Women Voters periodically submits articles describing its positions on relevant topics and rationale for taking them. The League is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

If you had a gem as precious as the Hope Diamond, would you let interested stone cutters alter it?

Probably not.

And yet, Alaskans all have ownership in a great and valuable jewel that some are talking of modifying. Our jewel consists of the 12,000 words of the Alaska State Constitution. Concise, brilliant, a shining example to all constitutional scholars, our constitution has become a historic example used and quoted widely.

How did we get this jewel, anyway? Did some old-timer see it lying around and just pick it up? Did the federal government hand it down to us? Was it a rehash of some older document from territorial days?

No, no and no.

Our Alaska Constitution was created in 1955 by the same number of delegates that formed the Constitution of the United States, 55.

In order to ensure fair representation, the elections were based on a three-tier system. Seventeen delegates were chosen from local election districts. From the four existing judicial election divisions, we got a combined total of 31 delegates. Then, to further ensure there would be no over representation from major population centers, seven "at large" delegates were picked from the entire territory.

Those Alaskans of 47 years ago knew they were working toward a historic goal. They had to create a framework on which to hang laws which would draw the entire territory together. Their goal was to write a set of words which would turn all the differences of this wild territory in one state where "all persons have a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the enjoyment of the rewards of their own industry; that all persons are equal, and entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law. ..."

Those words are taken from Article one, Section one of our jewel of a constitution.

Another shining facet of that document is the provision that every 10 years, we voters decide whether or not there should be a constitutional convention for the altering of this set of words.

Each time this option has appeared on the ballot, the people of Alaska have said "no" to a constitution convention.

This fall, the option will again appear on our ballots. There are many people taking positions on each side of the issue. Many say that Alaska is not the same state it was in 1955, and we must modify our constitution to better suit us.

One thing we know for certain is that the delegates that would turn up next time would not be the same. Those 55 Alaskans worked for the good of all of us. They did their job, and then went back to who they were; true citizens of their community. Most of them dropped from the government scene.

At a constitutional convention today, who would we get as delegates? Could they be non-partisan? Could the distribution be fair? Could "one person-one vote" legislation give over-representation to large urban areas? Could we keep the count at 55?

In 1955, there was a time limit of 75 days. Could we fit a new convention into that time frame? The territorial legislation allotted $300,000 to the project. Could we be so frugal? The nonpartisan members of the convention brought in experts who had no political or economic connections to the task, and the delegates heeded their suggestions. Could we be so wise?

We have indeed changed a lot in 47 years. And our constitution has accommodated to those changes by amendments and statutes. It can continue to do so. We are lucky to have such a document to live by.

Jean Kimple, a retired teacher, is a member of the Central Kenai Peninsula League of Women Voters.

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