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That New York as well as New England had annual town meetings may come as a surprise to many. It did to this author when I read in a 19th-century woman's diary on several occasions that "the men went to town meeting." Records of the town where the diary author lived, confirmed this, but neither the town clerk nor anyone ese I spoke to had ever heard of such a thing. It turns out that it was only in mid-20th century that "town meetings" disappeared from the laws of the state, though by that time they had long been indistinguishable from town elections.
The town as a unit was and is important in New England while in other parts of the country counties typically perform most local government functions outside cities. When the British historian James Bryce observed our system in his classic The American Commonwealth (1888), the New England town meetings reminded him of the Easter vestry of England. Engllish derivation may explain the typical early spring timing, which otherwise appears impractical in the Northeast's much harsher climate than the English one. Traditionally, the beginning of sugaring is said to have determined the date of New England town meetings, with the dates set for early March in Vermont and New Hampshire. Kingston, NY, held town meetings in the 1720s on the first Tuesday in March. Dutch practice may also have included such meetings.
Other states adopted the concept of towns as units of local government, some preferring the term "township" and many over time severely restricting their functions. Local office holders rather than the annual meeting itself came to carry out local government activities requiring day-to-day attention. Other local concerns were transferred to the county. In New York the town meeting's chief purpose became little more than the election of town officers. As a 1894 case summarized it:
"A town meeting was originally a meeting of the town electors at one place for the election of town officers and for the transaction of other town business. In course of time it was found inconvenient to have the election at one place, and that resulted in a number of the towns being divided into election districts for the convenience of the voters. The elections were held on one day, and the town officers met at a subsequent day to canvass the result of the election of the several election districts, and also to transact such other business as might be brought before them ……" (In re Foley)
Nevertheless as late as 1922 New York civics texts referred to the town meeting as a legislative branch.
It took almost the entire 19th century for elections at all levels of government in New York to occur on the November day we recognize for this civic purpose. April was the common time for election of members of the legislature, governor, and members of Congress in the early decades. The Constitution adopted in 1821 created a uniform November date - the first Monday - for state elections. It also did away with property requirements for voting and changed a number of offices from appointive to elective. A 1836 Gazetteer of the State of New York describes town electoral practices:
"The qualified voters annually assemble in their respective towns, at such place as they at their annual town meetings from time to time appoint, on some Tuesday between the first Tuesday in February and the first Tuesday in May, both inclusive each year (to choose a Supervisor, Town Clerk, 3 to 5 assessors, tax collector, three inspectors of common schools, and others) … Town meetings are open only between the rising and setting of the sun, and may be held two days successively, but not longer."
The passage describes practices that lasted until late in the century. The Constitution adopted in 1846 had this to say on the subject:
"All …town … officers, whose election or appointment is not provided for by this Constitution, shall be elected by the electors of such … towns… or of some division thereof, as the Legislature shall designate for that purpose." (Article X, §2)
In 1890, the Legislature, as thus directed by the Constitution, spelled out the rules for town meetings and the election of town officers:
"The citizens of the several towns in this state, except in counties containing upwards of 300,000 inhabitants, qualified by the Constitution to vote for elective officers, shall annually … on the second Tuesday of February, assemble and hold town meetings in their respective towns …"
(Chapter 569, Laws of 1890)
County Boards of Supervisors were authorized to set a date between February 1 and May 1 and to permit the creation of election districts within towns. Inspectors of election in such districts were to be "able to read or write." Terms of town officers (no statement whether they needed to be literate) were for one year. "Town meetings shall be kept open for the purposes of voting in the day time only, between the rising and the setting of the sun, and, if necessary, may be continued by a vote of the meeting during the next day, and no longer, and be adjourned to another place not more than one fourth of a mile from the place where it was appointed." Powers of annual town meetings, in addition to the election of officers, were specified and ranged from promulgating "rules for fences and for impounding animals" to support of the poor and raising taxes as well as to "determine any other question lawfully submitted to them." Though the Constitution in Article VI required secrecy in elections, the courts in 1893 upheld election by show of hands for town officers.
Subsequent legislatures kept tinkering with these provisions and passed amendments almost every year through the 1890s. Under a provision adopted in 1893, voters could petition for the creation of election districts within a town. That year also saw the beginning of the publication of an annual Manual for Election Officers and Voters in the State of New York, compiled by the Clerk to the Secretary of State.
On April 12, 1893, the New York Times ran an extensive report on the "satisfactory results" of tests of the Myers voting machine by several towns in Niagara County the previous day. The 1893 and 1894 legislatures took cognizance of this new invention and regulated its use at town meetings and general elections. Towns with over 400 voters were now required to be divided into election districts and to appoint election inspectors in each. Town meetings still were annual events, generally held at a time different from the date of the general election.
In November 1894 New York voters adopted a new constitution that made for some fundamental changes, and not only with regard to elections. Among other provisions, it instructed the legislature to "provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools; (sic) wherein all the children of the State may be educated." (Article IX, §1). It established home rule for cities and set two-year terms for the Governor and other state officials (Article XI, §2).
This being an era of reform, clean conduct of elections was a major objective, and to this end the 1894 Constitution separated municipal from state and national elections - but only in cities. Elections of local officers were to take place in odd-numbered years, those of state and federal officeholders in even-numbered ones. Incumbents' terms were extended or abridged during the transition in order to establish the prescribed schedule. The requirement that boards of elections consist of representatives of both major parties was equally directed to the achievement of clean elections, as were provisions for the registration of voters. Neither applied to town meetings. Having the candidates of all parties appearing on oe ballot was a major innovation. This so-called "Australian ballot" replaced the earlier practice of each party supplying its tickets ahead of time to voters.
In 1897 the legislature shifted town meetings to biennial. All town officers were to serve two-year terms except for four-year terms for justices of the peace. The date for town meetings was to be the second Tuesday in February, subject to being changed for a period of not less than three years by each county's Board of Supervisors. References to annual town meetings remained in several sections, possibly for the conduct of business other than the biennial election of officers.
Laws passed in 1898 for the first time permitted Boards of Supervisors not only to determine a date between February 1 and May 1 for the biennial town meetings, but also to authorize their being held at the same time as the general election in November. Detailed instructions for the changeover, including adjustment of terms of incumbents, were supplied.
After 1899 a town could of its own volition opt for the November date "by adopting a proposition therefor at a regular town meeting …" And women who were property owners were permitted to vote on "propositions to raise money by tax or assessment." A law passed in 1901 specified that town meetings held in November occur in odd-numbered years as the 1894 Constitution had directed for cities. It was again necessary to rearrange terms of incumbents elected in 1898 and 1899 to accord with this schedule.
In 1898 counties with between 150,000 and 160,000 population had been instructed to hold their next town meetings in November 1899 and biennially thereafter. Albany County was the only one fitting that description. Similar laws with application to particular counties only soon followed. They were phrased as applying to counties between x and y population - which turned out to be a class with one member only. (Enacting laws couched in seemingly general terms but in fact with very specific applicabillity is a technique not unknown to this day). The majority of the state's counties had populations under 50,000 and were unaffected by these mandates.
Even without specific legislative direction, counties fell in line and adopted the November date for their town elections, some more speedily than others. One county took exception to the 1903 law applicable to counties with between 50,000 and 54,000 population, and directed at it. Its Board of Supervisors, stating they wanted to keep their town meetings in February, instructed the local members of the state legislature to work for the law's repeal. It did not happen.
The Consolidated Election Law of 1909, an attempt to codify the legislative efforts of the past nearly two decades, contains additional provisions or separate chapters for various counties but mainly aimed at completing separation of national and state from local elections. References to "town meeting for the election of town officers" and to the traditional spring meeting dates remained elsewhere.
Almost each year for the next decade or so, the legislature passed various clarifying amendments, rules for the creation of election districts and for nominating candidates for town office, and it made needed provisions when women gained the vote a year and a half before the passage of the 19th Amendment. In 1916, 17 of New York's 62 counties still stuck to their February, March, or April dates. That number was down to seven in 1918.
New sections of the Town Law, added in 1932, for the first time refer to "Biennial town elections," stating that these were "a substitute for a town meeting …, and a reference in any law to a town meeting or special town meeting shall be construed as reference to a town election…" "The next biennial town meeting and election of town officers in every town of the state shall be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November Nineteen-hundred-and-thirty-three," it ordered.
The venerable town meeting had taken a long time to breathe its last, but finally it was over. In the leading legal encyclopedia for New York one no longer finds the phrase "town meeting" in the Index under either "Towns" or "Elections," only in "Words and Phrases," where the 1894 In re Foley case is quoted.
One wonders what reception was accorded the various legislative mandates around the state. Did more than one county object? The answer is not easy to find. Nowhere In the state is there an office that has data of when each of the state's counties made the switch to holding town elections in November. The State Archives contain only a small portion of Board of Supervisors and town board minutes, and their indexes are spotty at best. In the early 20th century Boards of Supervisors typically met for their annual session in November and December and concerned themselves mainly with fiscal matters. Town Accounts, also found in those minute books, sometimes indicate dates of town meetings.
New York's town meetings may not have had as wide legislative powers as the better-known New England town meetings, but they deserve recognition. We can look back at these annual meetings of eligible voters with some nostalgia for they represent a degree of civic participation that we would be only too glad to attain in the 21st century.
Boynton, Frank D. Actual Government of New York: a Manual of the Local, Municipal, State and Federal Government for Use in Public and Private Schools of New York State (1918) Fiske, John et al. Civil Government in the United States (1904)
Jewett's Manual for Election Officers and Voters in the State of New York (1893-1918)
Lancaster, Lane W. Government in Rural America (1937)
New York Jurisprudence (1979)
Snider, Clyde F. Local Government in Rural America (1957)
Zimmerman, Joseph. The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action (1999)
Mary Robinson Sive's Lost Villages: Historic Driving Tours in the Catskills, published by the Delaware County Historical Association in 2002, explored local history through visits to cemeteries, frequently markers of communities no longer in existence. Her career was in library service and publishing.