October 30, 2012

Qualified Voters

Campaign flyers (2012)
Grouped semi-alphabetically, the list stretches across three glued-up pages. There are over two hundred names. All are men. The mylar envelope in which they are preserved is labeled simply “Voter List, early 1800s.”

The impending elections loom large here in New Hampshire. Post office boxes overflow with campaign flyers launched from left, right and center. At the same time, the phase-in of new voter eligibility/identification laws may discourage some eligible voters and disenfranchise others.

At one time only property-owning, white males were permitted to vote. In 1792 New Hampshire became the first state to eliminate the property requirement. In order to monitor eligible voters, selectmen created a master list of “qualified inhabitants.” The list's existence here in New London was first noted in an 1831 entry made by the town clerk. The same entry is repeated, almost verbatim, at least once more, but it may have been a practice more common than the records suggest. In the 1870s, the official position of “Supervisor of the Check List” was filled, as it has been ever since.

By comparing our “Voter List, early 1800s” with cemetery records, we learned precisely when this collection of eligible voters lived. Furthermore, the clerk’s records confirm that such a list was compiled, publicly posted, and used to qualify voters for the 1844 presidential election.

Town of New London voter check list (1844)

Campaign issues included slavery, the annexation of Texas, and expansion into the Oregon Territory. On the ninth ballot, the Democratic Party finally nominated pro-expansion candidate James K. Polk. The Whig Party chose Henry Clay in one ballot despite his earlier failed presidential bids.

Among the third party candidates was Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Latter Day Saints and publisher of the Book of Mormon. Smith's candidacy ended on June 27th when he was killed by a mob that stormed the Illinois jailhouse where he had been detained. The party-less presidential incumbent, democrat John Tyler, had many supporters but withdrew from the race on August 24th rather than risk splitting the vote. Representing the anti-slavery Liberty Party, James Birney was an alternative choice for anti-slavery Whigs, while some voters were enticed to vote for Polk by his pledge to serve only one term. (He kept that pledge and died of cholera a few months after his term ended.)

The “inhabitants of the town of New London... qualified to vote” were “notified & warned” to meet at one o’clock in the afternoon, on Monday, November 4, 1844, in order to choose six electors for president of the United States. On this day, the slate of electors led by William Badger received 78 votes, while Joseph Low’s garnered 68 and Jesse Woodbury’s trailed with 55. None was identified by party affiliation but they represented the Democratic, Whig and Liberty parties respectively. After recording the tally, the town clerk included the following notation in his book:
“And the Moderator caused each voter’s name to be checked on a list for that purpose at the time his vote was received... “

There were two other items considered that day: 55 voted in favor of abolishing capital punishment with 106 opposed, and just 20 voted in favor of altering the state constitution with 86 opposed.

In New London the total number of votes cast for presidential electors was 201, for a participation rate of 95%; the nationwide turnout was 79%, which nearly matches the percentage of registered voters participating in our last (2008) presidential election. 

Although James Polk won the national contest, within New England he carried only New Hampshire and Maine. He also had the distinction of losing both his birth-state of North Carolina and Tennessee, where he had served as governor. In fact, Polk won the popular majority by just 1.4% in November, but he took 62% of the votes cast by presidential electors on December 4, 1844.

New London's 2012 checklist has been prepared for next Tuesday’s election, so make sure you can either prove your identity or sign a “challenged voter affidavit” — perhaps a relic for some future archivist to explore.