by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
Tomorrow, November 5th, is Election Day and I would like you to vote for me. That’s right, Rachel Dworkin, your friendly neighborhood archivist is running for the Chemung County Library Board’s 11th District. If you live in my district, I want you to vote for me. If you don’t live in my district, I want you to vote for whoever is running. I want you to vote on the library budget, for sheriff and city court judge, town board and whatever else is on your ballot. I don’t care who you vote for (as long as it’s me), I just want you to vote.
For much of America’s history, the majority of its citizens were unable to exercise their right to vote. At the time of the nation’s founding, not only were women, Blacks and Native Americans specifically forbidden to vote, many states had property requirements which also disenfranchised poor white men as well. Between 1812 and 1860, most states did away with the property qualifications, but poll taxes remained a popular way of keeping poor people from the polls until it was made illegal in the 24th Amendment of the Constitution in 1964.
In 1870, all non-white men were technically granted the right to vote by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, but only kind of. Many southern states used things like poll taxes and crazy complicated literacy tests to bar African-Americans from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made them illegal. Even New York State had a $250 property requirement for African-American voters until 1873. After a failed attempt to pass an amendment to the state constitution removing the requirement in 1846, wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith began distribution 120,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks to Black New Yorkers so they could meet the property requirements. Twelve men in Chemung County, including John W. Jones and his brother, received land from Smith as part of the scheme. By the end of the Civil War, Jones, one of the richest African-Americans in upstate New York, almost certainly met the qualifications to vote.
|Garrit Smith, wealthy abolitionist|
Although Abigail Adams asked her husband to remember the ladies, it would not be until 1869 when Wyoming granted women the right to vote as a way to entice female settlers to the state. Other western states and territories followed suit during the 1890s, but the eastern states were slow to do the same. New York State was home to a whole slew of unsuccessful bids for women’s suffrage before amending the state constitution in 1917 to allow women the vote. Elmira was a hotbed of suffragist sentiment. Over the years there were a number of rallies downtown in support of the cause and, in 1915, a poll conducted by the Elmira Advertiser found that 96% of Chemung County women supported getting the vote. In 1920, all American women gained the right to vote with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
|Suffragettes on Water St., 1915|
Since 1971, all citizens over the age of 18 have technically have the vote, but even today Americans are still fighting for their rights. There are currently law suits pending against 10 states because of voting laws which disenfranchise Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics and the poor. Pennsylvania, our neighbor to the south, recently enacted a voter id law which the ACLU is challenging on the grounds it hurts the elderly, disabled and poor. In New York, the homeless and people who have prior felony convictions face significant barriers to registering to vote. Considering our history, the right to vote is something which no American should take for granted. So, vote early, vote often and, most importantly, vote for me!