Vote where your heart is

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.

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“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 lissa.e.harris@gmail.com.

There are 6 comments

  1. Don

    “These are dark times, and there is much at stake nationally.” Really? The economy is adding jobs at record pace and outpacing projections, consumer confidence at highest level since December 2000, GDP at 3% and beating projections, unemployment down to 4.2%, US factories expanding at 13 year high, Dow at record highs, US intellectual property being protected in China, household wealth in US at record high, food stamp usage down, major tax reform bill soon to take effect bring trillions of dollars back home, black unemployment at 17 year low…

    1. Benjamin Pren

      Excellent job parroting the Fox News talking points. Can you do those from memory?

      Seriously though, the economic outlook hasn’t changed significantly in the last year. Obama supporters used to rattle off similar statistics to rebut charges that the u.s. was a “disaster.” They ring hollow now as they did then. most of them can still be explained by corporations and the super rich doing well, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything for the rest of us. It seems like these statistics are deployed by partisans without regard for whether there’s any sign that people are doing better.

      And even if the economy WERE doing so much better, it can still be a dark time. Unlike every president up to now, who at least have tried to preach unity and common cause, Trump spends all his time trying to exploit the issues that divide us to ensure constant reaffirmation from his “base” — you know, the folks who would rather suspend an election than risk Trump losing, who support the prosecution of justice department officials because they’re investigating Trump (who himself advocates the prosecution of his political enemies), who would rather vote for a child molester than a Democrat (and so on…). Not to mention the fact that the man who can unilaterally launch nuclear war seems to have lost his grip on reality (imaginary crowd size, says it wasn’t him on the Access Hollywood tape, thinks all protesters are paid, thinks he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal votes).

      So yeah, the economy could be doing just fine, but if the nation’s faith in the basic integrity of institutions necessary for any stable functioning Democracy is being shredded by the president and the risk of nuclear war is at its greatest point in over 50 years, it’s fair to say it’s dark.

  2. Penny

    It’s not clear how coal plant operators are similar to second home owners. I would say that second home owners are individuals who definitely have a big stake in local politics as they often spend more than just weekends in their second home. They often buy a second home with the intention to retire there and spend more of their personal time, aside from work and commuting, at their second home. There are many small towns which depend on the second home owners for their tax base. No matter how much a person would want to live here full time, there really is a lack of good jobs upstate. The bottom line is that NYS law allow second home owners to choose and no one should suggest that they do not or should not have a choice.

  3. Tom Parrett

    Your column makes several volatile, even xenophobic, claims before it settles down to a sensible (if parochial) conclusion: “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.”

    While that might not be possible for many, and using a local health care system, if it’s sub-par, is foolish if one has a choice, what’s not to like about an influx of new voters who are committed to making local health care better?

    And quite often such voters, far from being “gentrification at the voting booth,” are people with small-town and rural roots. They’ve taken jobs in an urban economy that supports them. They buy homes and property upstate to reconnect with what they know and love. And while their professional life may depend on the city, chances are they’ve made few inroads into their urban communities, which is why voting there makes little sense. Over time they realize upstate is what matters to them, and it’s where they want to get involved. They work to understand local issues. Go out of their way to buy in upstate stores. Give generously to local organizations, to the food bank, to the library. Volunteer locally on weekends. Where they work they don’t even know the name of their representative to the city council. Upstate they chat with their councilman at the post office. This, most certainly, is “skin in the game.”

    1. Lissa Harris

      This is a nuanced topic, and we could both probably fill a lot more space on it than my column is allotted in the paper. Short answer: I think the type of second homeowner you’re describing, who has real roots and connections in the community, has a good argument for voting upstate that has nothing to do with property rights. (The kind of argument the court recognized in the Bovina case.)

      Some second homeowners are deeply invested upstate. This is undeniable. I don’t think it follows that we should throw our energy behind a drive to register as many second homeowners as possible in NY-19, no matter how connected they might or not be to their upstate towns, and no matter how alienating that effort might be to existing voters on the rolls whose votes are explicitly, deliberately being diluted.

      Why should we assume that new voters signing up purely out of a desire to vote Faso out will vote in the best interests of our schools and hospitals and communities at the local level, if they don’t know the issues?

  4. Steven L Fornal

    This column brings attention to why the Dems continue to lose to Republicans at the state and federal level. Why? Because this column makes a case of some fabled fairness that doesn’t exist in the Republican play book. Under Obama something like 1,000 seats were lost to Republicans vis-a-vis state house seats. 70 seats in Congress were lost.

    Republicans have implemented laws all across America to thwart/suppress votes coming from young, minority, aged and poor constituencies which historically have voted Democrat. Tens of thousands of such citizens were denied the vote this past election (2016). [Read: “Billionaires and Ballot Bandits” by Greg Palast; or watch the DVD “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy”]

    Republicans have shown under Trump no qualms about changing the rules of the game which since Bill Clinton required 60 votes in the Senate for anything budget related; they got this current tax plan with 51 votes having voted to amend that agreement.

    It’s time Dems fight to win. Not by any means necessary but certainly by any legal means. Having second home owners declare their upstate home to be their voting district is absolutely within the bounds of the law. USE IT!

    As for the concerns of locals which you seem to be championing, let’s face it, they’ve had things pretty much their way (upstate Republican majorities) for decades: Growth the be all and end all and to hell with impacts to neighbors. Now, the tide is changing. With Dem majorities the local Republicans may realize they’ll have to compromise rather than have it all their way. How can that be bad?

    I think your view of local interests are idealized. The farmer that can no longer make it as a dairy farm so starts to mine it with all the impacts that entails isn’t thinking about community. They’re thinking about their own survival. Republicans voting Republican ’cause they could never vote for a Democrat belies their voting on behalf of the entire town and its people. Actually, we still have areas where newcomers are not seen as part of the community even though they live there full time; often for decades. The mantra being: If you weren’t born here, you don’t really have a say in things.

    The way to change that attitude isn’t to sit back and hope Republican leaning voters give considered thought to the best interests of all rather than personal benefit. The way to change that thinking is to bring people into the process that makes such considered judgments when going into the voting booth.

    This upstate area has seen and is seeing an upsurge in business activity from “implanted” city folk moving here. They bring their energy, money, creativity and thoughtfulness along with them. Yay!!

    Sometimes trying to fit in skews perception. I think that may be at play here at a less than conscious level. The credo of nature is adapt or perish. If people want to come here and buy property they refurbish or build anew and decide this is the place that most resonates with their sense of home, so be it. Why even consider denying them the legitimacy of that vote?

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