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New election exhibit at the State Archives

November 25, 2010

PROVIDENCE – You probably thought you would never again see one of those old-fashioned voting machines with the little metal levers next to candidates’ names and the curtain that opened and closed behind voters for privacy.
But if you want to, you can.
One of those Shoup Lever Voting Machines is a centerpiece of an election-themed exhibit now on display at the RI State Archives called RI Votes: A Lively Look at Election History. It joins an even earlier version of a mechanical voting device, the McTammany Voting Machine. The McTammany was introduced in 1900, but was banned in 1901 because it was found to inaccurately tally votes. The ban was repealed later that year and the machine’s use was re-authorized in 1906. The first women to cast ballots in Rhode Island would have done so on one of those machines. The Shoup machines were introduced in 1936 and were used until they were replaced by the current optical scan machines in 1994.
Women’s right to vote is a significant part of the exhibit. There is a copy of the legislation giving women the vote in 1917 (although they didn’t get to cast ballots until the presidential election of 1920).
Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, whose office is responsible for the state archives, says he takes the original version of that legislation around to schools and colleges for presentation. “Ninety years ago, which is when women first voted, is not all that long ago,” he noted.
Mollis said an exhibit about election history seemed appropriate given that Rhode Island just finished electing a slate of new officers. “People who have the election bug, now that the election is over, have someplace to go.”
The exhibit is small, it is easy to peruse in a matter of a half-hour to 45 minutes, but it is chock full of Ocean State election memorabilia.
There is a picture of President Harry Truman speaking on the steps of Providence City Hall just days before the famous 1948 election when a Chicago newspaper proclaimed “Dewey Defeats Truman when he really hadn’t. In front of him is a throng of more than 50,000 people crowded into what is now called Kennedy Plaza.
President John F. Kennedy, a part-time Newporter, is well represented at the exhibit, included in photographs with other Rhode Island Democrats and the front page of the newspaper announcing his victory over Richard Nixon. Another newspaper front page shouts of President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater and underneath that, in type just as large, is the headline “Chafee Triumphs by 85,604 Votes”. That would be John H. Chafee, father of the guy elected governor a few weeks ago by a somewhat smaller margin. There is also a photograph of a billboard with the motto “Keep Chafee” with a “Thank You” sticker plastered over it after he won re-election.
The Dorr Rebellion has its own table in the display, complete with a copy of The People’s Constitution that tried and failed to upset the established order back in 1841 by allowing all male citizens to vote, not just white men who owned land, which was the law back in those days. Blacks had the right to vote here until 1823, according to Kenneth Carlson, the reference archivist who keeps and maintains Rhode Island’s historical documents and other artifacts, when the law was changed to allow only white men. A new constitution finally restored the voting rights of people of color. The exhibit includes a photograph of Mahion Van Horne of Newport, the first person of color to be elected to office in Rhode Island, in 1885, winning a General Assembly seat.
There are more esoteric items on display, for example the certificates that validated the victory of RI presidential electors pledged to John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln. Also, you can check out proxy tickets – essentially early versions of mail ballots – for the Anti-Masonic Party, the Democratic Republican Farmer’s Party and numerous others.
A collection of campaign buttons includes one for Woodrow Wilson, another for the Harding-Coolidge ticker, a Nixon Now pin and more modern accessories such as a Hillary Clinton button and one for Democrats for Cianci.
Carlson said the exhibit is just a small piece of the “millions of documents and thousands of records” dating back to 1636.
The archives are kept at an otherwise non-descript storefront at 337 Westminster St. in Downtown Providence. It is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with free validated parking in the lot directly across the street. It is free and open to the public.

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