Monday, March 5, 2012

Voting 'em up or down in Newton

Wandering around Sussex County this weekend, we found ourselves driving into the center of Newton, the county seat. We didn't expect to drive almost smack dab into a relic of colonial history: the town green. Now adorned with a massive Civil War memorial and an old county office building, it's bordered on all sides by what passes for city roads in the quieter parts of the state.

When you talk about a colonial town green, New England will come to mind for a lot of people. Bring up the topic in Northern New Jersey, and many will think of Morristown, which continues to maintain its park-like green in the middle of the business district. Newton's holds a special distinction: it's the only colonial county seat in the state where a courthouse on its original site fronts a town square or public green. That's a lot of qualifiers, but it basically means that when you drive into town, you can't miss seeing the Classic Revival-style courthouse. The circa 1847 structure stands on the same site as the original courthouse which was built shortly after Newton was named Sussex County seat in 1761.

We stopped to get more information from the informative Sussex County historical marker nearby. Turns out that in addition to the usual public square uses (political discourse, corporal punishment, common pasture), the Newton square was also the public polling site.

Rather than having an anonymous balloting process for municipal contests on Election Day, Newton residents voted by where they stood, physically. Sides of the green would be designated for particular candidates, voters would stand in the area that corresponded to their choice, and a headcount would be taken. And given that the green is on a hill, you'd literally be voting up or voting down, depending on where your candidate's spot was.

Newton's population grew rapidly with the construction of factories in the area, and I gather that's what put the headcount voting practice to an end in 1858. It's hard enough keeping a few dozen people standing in a single spot. Imagine how difficult it would be to keep hundreds from milling around before the official talliers lost count.

While I personally prefer the confidentiality of the voting booth, there's value in casting one's ballots publicly, in the center of town. Everyone could see who had shown up to vote, and peer pressure could encourage the tardy or reluctant to come out and participate. Those who didn't vote yet still complained about the state of affairs could easily be identified and told to hold their peace. I can imagine that the practice was the basis for many lively discussions around town in the hours and days after Election Day.

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