When America was new, it was common practice in state law to restrict voting rights not only to white men, but to white male property owners. The Founding Fathers felt that people who owned no land lacked the agency and motivation to properly participate in politics, and decades passed before that view fell out of fashion. Not until the middle of the nineteenth century did the last state — North Carolina — lift the requirement that all voters must own property.
These days, the antiquated idea that those who do not own land should be denied the vote has earned a place in history alongside the denial of votes to women and people of color. To most people, the property requirement seems an unjust anachronism, remembered fondly only in the fever dreams of the most fervent Tea Partiers.
Nevertheless, the animating spirit of the old voting laws — the idea that owning a piece of the ground on which the community sits entitles you to a voice in its government — is alive and well in upstate New York. For a taste of old-school electoral philosophy, one need only look to the burgeoning movement to register second homeowners to vote upstate.
“For second-home property owners, don’t forget that you’re paying local property taxes and supporting local businesses. In other words, you’re part of the community and your vote counts,” reads a call to action on SmartVoteNY.com, a website run by NY19 Votes. They, and other local grassroots efforts to mobilize the second homeowner vote, are seeking to topple Republican Congressman John Faso of the 19th District in the 2018 election, and have seized on recruiting second homeowners from the NYC metro area to vote upstate as a winning strategy.
In this economically beleaguered region, where our elected leaders are forever wringing their hands about how to funnel more money into Main Street, a casual observer of local politics may be forgiven for measuring their connection to the social and political community by the dollars they put into it. But that’s not how voting rights ought to work. Shareholders of coal plants have a financial stake in little rural Appalachian towns, too. It would be a perversion of democracy to suppose that their economic interest should give them the right to vote there.
Full disclosure: Barring Roy Moore levels of shenanigans on the Dem side, I’ll be voting next November for anybody who stands a real chance at getting Faso out of office. But I don’t blame any Republican who cries foul at the open effort to import downstate voters. It’s a cynical and short-sighted move on its face.
Local law is clear on allowing second homeowners to vote. In 2008, a New York State appellate court ruled in favor of eight Bovina residents who had sued the Delaware County Board of Elections, cementing once and for all the right of second homeowners to choose which of their homes to vote from.
The Bovina Eight, the court opined, had ties to the region that constituted “genuine, long-term contracts created out of a true desire to become part of the Bovina community.” In other words, their right to vote from their weekend home arose not from mere property ownership, or a financial stake in the value of their homes, but from a deep identification with Bovina and with the fate of its residents.
It is beyond the capacity of a local election board to measure a desire, or to weigh a voter’s level of commitment to the greater community. We use voters’ addresses as a stand-in for these things because it is practical. But when we stop respecting the idea that people who vote in a community should have its interests at heart, in pursuit of a fleeting strategic advantage, we lose sight of what it means to hold voting rights in a community.
These are dark times, and there is much at stake nationally. But local politics are no less important. And it is ludicrous to suppose that the only way to build a solid platform for better representation in NY-19 is to import voters from more left-leaning areas to drown out the voices of full-time residents.
By a stroke of good fortune, the boundaries of this Congressional district — drawn not by partisan insiders in the Legislature, but by federal judges — are fairer than they have been for generations. Local Dems who got used to watching Hinchey sail to reelection in a heavily gerrymandered district year after year may not like it, but in its current form, NY-19 is no safe seat for whoever might hold it. And even in Republican-dominated areas, there are plenty of good arguments that Democrats can make to local voters — a fact that my own wife recently proved by getting herself elected to local office by a broad margin in historically red Middletown.
On a local level, the result of playing games with local voter registration in single-minded pursuit of broad national ends is that the polls in our smallest and most vital local elections will be skewed by people who have little skin in the game of local politics. It is, to use a dirty word, gentrification at the voting booth, and it may well have unforeseen consequences down the line. Already, it is common in the rural Catskills for local elections to turn on a handful of absentee ballots (looking at you, Ulster County District 22).
I have no quarrel with second homeowners who choose to vote upstate, so long as their commitment to the local community is genuine. In their shoes, I would probably make a similar choice. But to any second homeowner who wants to vote here, I have to ask: Why not go further? Work toward moving your livelihood upstate. Put your body at the mercy of our local healthcare system. Enroll your children in our public schools. Throw your lot in with ours.
If that prospect scares you too much to contemplate, maybe you should keep voting downstate.
Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.