In 2020, voter access is a defining issue — just like it was on the old Lower East Side
This is the second installment of a special series exploring The Forward’s election coverage throughout its 123-year history. Click here to sign up to receive it through our email newsletter, and find our first installment here.
With President Trump repeatedly challenging the integrity of the 2020 balloting during his first debate with Vice President Joe Biden this week — claims that experts largely consider baseless — it’s clear that voter access and voter fraud will remain major themes of the campaign through the election. And while the pandemic raises unique questions about our electoral systems, the Forward has been considering these issues for generations.
We’ve mined our archives to help put the current discussion into historical context.
After spending the summer sowing disinformation about the security of mail-in voting and generally undermining public trust in the country’s electoral systems, Trump this week urged his supporters to monitor polling places, immediately raising concerns about voter intimidation. In the history of American politics, such concerns are hardly new — in fact, they were on the minds of Forward editors as far back as 1908.
In those days, voters on the Lower East Side would crowd into unlikely locations to cast their votes: saloons. Election Day could be a menacing experience in such already-rowdy environments. Bruisers sent by party bosses would try to pressure voters, many of them immigrants who spoke little English, into checking the box for their candidates. It was the heyday of Tammany Hall, the often-corrupt political association that for decades ran New York’s Democratic Party machine, and the rules were clear: You voted Tammany, or you faced the consequences.
“Don’t let them scare you! Remember every thief, every murderer, every brute frightens their victim that way,” the Forward during that election, encouraging readers to vote the Socialist Party line. “Be mindful it’s only dangerous when the detestable Tammany gangsters are out in their full villainous force. When their calumny is slightly less empowered, they won’t be able to do more harm, but rather, less.”
In other words: Stand strong and vote against them, and they’ll lose the power to bully you. The sample ballot below, which ran Nov. 3, 1908, gave voters the clearest possible instructions on how to check the box for the Socialist Eugene V. Debs. The headline is blunt: “This is how you ought to vote today!”
And Tammany intimidation was only one of the barriers to voting faced by American Jews.
As immigrants learning a new language, ballots — let alone the guidelines for filling them out — were hard for many to understand. Ballots that were stained, torn or marked outside the boxes were invalidated, and while voters were entitled to request clean ballots, such an ask often triggered harassment. Then there were the “repeaters.” “Vote early, because it can happen that paid ‘repeaters’ from the opposition parties will arrive earlier than you and vote in your name,” The Forward advised in that 1908 article.
A decade later, in 1918, The Forward published step-by-step guidelines for a new cohort of first-time voters: women, who had been granted in New York State the year before.
“Women!” it exhorted, “In a week from tomorrow, November 5th, there will be an election. If you are registered you can vote. Therefore, you must remember the following rules:
You must not fear anyone and can vote however your conscience dictates.
It’s a secret ballot. Nobody may know how you voted. You must to that end not be scared, and can vote Socialist.
It’s the first time you’re voting. Know that you musn’t crumple up your ballot nor sully it. The politicians, the Tammany folks who opposed your voting, are now hoping your votes won’t count. That your inexperience will make you wreck your ballot. Be ready for that. Be mindful of it.
You can come to the Socialist headquarters of each district all day. There we’ll show you how to vote.”
It wasn’t exactly unbiased advice. The Forward of that era was unabashedly political, and habitually celebrated the participation of Socialist Party observers at the polls at the same time it decried Tammany for the same approach. But amid the partisan pressure, there were valuable kernels in the advice that resonate a century later.
Be ready for people to dissuade you from exercising your franchise. Reach out for help from reliable sources if you’re confused by what you’re hearing about how the election will work. Vote your conscience, no matter the force you’re met with. And remember: The vote is a right, not a privilege.
_Chana Pollack, the Forward’s archivist, contributed reporting.__