The History of Voting in Dekalb
by Bryan Thompson
People tend to think the way we do things now is the way it has always been done, or maybe the only “right” way for a thing to be done. I thought in this election year it would be interesting to examine how the way we vote has changed over the history of the Town of De Kalb.
To begin we must go back to before the town and state even existed. The first colony-wide election was held by the Dutch in 1641. Under the English Duke of York, an assembly was elected in 1665. When we say election, it looked quite different from what we think of today. To vote for the colonial assembly the via voce system was used.
Each voter would appear before the local sheriff or constable and declare his vote. When the first New York State constitution was written in 1777 it was decided to try an “experiment” with paper ballots for voting. The paper ballots were used for voting for the governor and lieutenant governor, but members of the legislature were still to be chosen by the via voce system. In 1787 the experiment was declared a success, and the paper ballot was extended to all elections. The via voce system survives to this day in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Town elections were handled using the town meeting system. All town officials were elected at the annual town meeting by the town electors appearing in person at the assigned meeting hall. The first town meeting in De Kalb was held on the first Tuesday in March, March 3, 1806 as proscribed by law.
Electors at the that time had to be male residents of the town for at least six months. They had to own at least 20 NYS pounds ($50) worth of property or rent 40 shillings ($5) worth of property to vote for representatives to the legislature, however to vote for the governor, lieutenant governor, and senators they had to own 100 NYS pounds ($250) of property.
The first state election that citizens of De Kalb took part in was in 1807. At that time the poll was held on the last Tuesday in April. Polls opened at 9 AM on April 28th and closed three days later on Thursday April 30 at six in the afternoon. The poll was open for three days!
The poll was supervised by the Town Supervisor, Assessors, and Town Clerk. Morgan Lewis received 40 votes for governor and Daniel Tompkins (under 2 different spellings) received 2 votes. Despite Lewis’s over whelming local support Tompkins won the state wide poll.
General elections would continue to be held on the last Tuesday in April for three days until New York adopted the second state constitution in 1822. The citizens of De Kalb voted to adopt the new constitution that year 91 yeas, 13 nays. The new constitution moved the time of the general elections from April to November. The polls were now to open on the first Tuesday in November at 9 AM and close on the following Thursday at 6 PM.
Up until the 1820’s no citizens of De Kalb had any option to vote for the President of the United States. New York States slate of presidential electors were chosen by the state legislature. Following the presidential election of 1824, a ballot initiative was raised to have the general electorate chose the presidential electors. In 1825 the voters were given the choice whether to choose the electors on a state wide basis or by districts. De Kalb’s citizens voted 48 by district and 28 by state wide plurality.
In the subsequent presidential election of 1828 Andrew Jackson received 15 electoral votes and John Quincy Adams received 10 electoral votes from New York State. This result greatly upset the New York State legislature which was controlled by Adam’s Whig party. They quickly passed a law that required all of New York’s electoral votes be cast for the presidential candidate with a plurality state wide.
In 1826 an amendment to New York State law was proposed that allowed the election of Justices of the Peace and also eliminated the property requirement for white men to vote. The same law raised the amount of property that black men had to own to vote from $50 to $250 in order to vote. Voters in the Town of De Kalb supported this measure 91 to 3. This voter restriction on Black male suffrage would continue until 1869.
Women would not be able to vote in local elections for many years to come. New York State first allowed women to vote in local school board elections in 1880. New York finally passed a state wide woman’s suffrage law in 1917.
In a surprise move the men of De Kalb voted for woman’s suffrage by a majority of 17. All of the major towns in the county including the college towns of Canton and Potsdam voted down votes for women with the exception of Gouverneur where it carried by 44 votes.
The first-year women could vote in general elections in De Kalb was 1918 two years before the national woman’s suffrage amendment was approved. Local newspaper accounts note that women turned out in large numbers for the general election that year.
The annual town meeting in De Kalb has a long and storied history. The date of the meeting was the first Tuesday in March until 1840 when it was changed to the third Tuesday in February. In 1851 the date was again changed to the second Tuesday in February. The town meeting would continue to be held on the second Tuesday in February until the last such meeting was held in De Kalb in 1894.
As would be expected when business was decided by a large crowd, Town meetings were at times heated affairs. Sometimes items were voted on repeatedly in one meeting as the convened electorate changed their minds on an issue.
One especially noteworthy instance was the town meeting of February 20, 1849. At issue was whether to build a bridge over the Oswegatchie river near Richville where none had ever existed before. The cost ($250) was a large expense, and the meeting became heated. A motion to have a paper ballot on the matter was voted down. An accurate vote could not be taken so the moderator opted to have the vote by division in the street outside the meeting hall, the yeas on one side of the street the nays on the other. The motion carried but the minutes do not tell us by how much.
The town of De Kalb conducted all state wide polls at one location in De Kalb Village until the election of 1843. That year was the first time a separate polling station was established at Richville and local election inspectors were noted. Two inspectors were elected at the town meeting, and one appointed by the Supervisor.
A third elections district was created in September 1886 for De Kalb Junction. A fourth election district was added for Kendrew August 18, 1890. There were four election districts in the Town of De Kalb for 96 years.
On June 7, 1986 in a cost cutting measure the Town Board voted to cut the number of voting districts to two. Old De Kalb village, where polling first started in 1807 and Kendrew were eliminated. Currently town polling is held at Richville and De Kalb Junction.
De Kalb Town Clerk Town Meeting Books One, Two, Three, Five, 1975 to 1991. De Kalb Junction, NY.
Durant, Samuel History of St Lawrence County New York Philadelphia, PA 1878.