Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

If you voted this week, you rightly presumed your ballot was secret. But a century in the future, who knows?

Last month, I got to inspect paper ballots marked by Arlington voters in pencil from the latter 19th century.

I accompanied county staff interns on a special tour of the rarely open and recently renovated archives of the Arlington Public Library system’s Center for Local History. Those skilled archivists just took delivery of a truckload of boxes from the Library of Virginia in Richmond — court records, personal property tax records and election-day documentation going back as far as 1850.

“I hereby present myself as a candidate,” wrote one in a May 25, 1899, declaration for an election that included candidates with bold-faced names like Rucker and Saegmuller. The “State of Virginia, Alexandria County” ballots — about the size of a parking ticket — displayed candidates for countywide and inner-county district offices: commonwealth’s attorney, sheriff, justice of the peace, constable and “overseer of the poor.” The (all-male) voters expressed their choice by crossing off the two names out of three not preferred. Some ballots noted the existence of tickets such as the Republicans or the People’s party.

Our tour took place at the upper floor of the archives at the old Woodmont school (co-located with a gymnastics facility and services for residents with disabilities). Its metal shelves are lined with processed documents in folders stored in acid-free containers, each with an assigned number and topic reflected in a searchable database, plus a paper finding aid inventory attached to the box. The unprocessed backlog is downstairs.

“We get donations in all different forms — from grocery bags to bankers boxes,” said the center’s manager, Judith Knudsen. “Sometimes people just leave things at our door.” On the table she displayed acquisitions that include back issues of the neighborhood newsletter “The Arlington Forester” and documents from the AME Zion Church going back 150 years. Ray Anderson, founder and longtime principal at the H-B Woodlawn secondary program, recently donated 50 boxes of papers.

Also on view are photos: members of Arlington’s seminal Ball family enjoying a game of horseshoes; the house that became the Cherrydale library. We also examined an early 1960s pamphlet circulated by black activists seeking to integrate the YMCA swimming pool.

The 1904-05 school year registry listed the books assigned. Voter registrations for women in Ballston in the 1940s listed occupations such as “stenographer” and “housewife,” with a separate list for “coloreds.” Assessments for the 1914 tax year, deemed too fragile, will be sent to a conservator, which is expensive, Knudsen said. A growing number of items are being displayed online, but that too costs money.

What drew ooohs and aahs from the young visitors were the tax assessment ledgers from as early as 1857. Households were taxed on possessions and employees. So the handwritten inventories list horses, mules and jennies. Later ones included automobiles, pianos and clocks. Free laborers were listed as well as enslaved persons, prompting some interns to marvel at the proof that slavery “actually happened.”

“We don’t yet know the records well, how to interpret them,” Knudsen said. “But they’re a window into the culture of the time, with hints of how things change over time.”

Intraparty tensions among Democrats surfaced the weekend before this week’s elections.

Longtime Democratic volunteer John Richardson removed his name from the roster of “poll greeters,” bemoaning party “orthodoxy.” After last May’s divisive primary for commonwealth’s attorney, Richardson went public with criticisms of the successful outside-funded Parisa Deghani-Tafti campaign against incumbent Theo Stamos. That led party officials, he said, to “disinvite” him from being a greeter.

Organizer Mary Detweiler denies this characterization, telling me, “Arlington Democrats are welcoming of all volunteers, regardless of who they supported during the primary.”

The “big tent” party asks poll greeters to “support all the candidates on the Democratic sample ballot when speaking to voters. For our valued volunteers who cannot do so for whatever reason by the time of the general election, we ask that they redirect their Election Day volunteerism to activities where they are not so conflicted.”