Politics & Elections

You must own property to vote in this Rhode Island fire district’s elections

“Until every one of our local governments are elected by the people they serve, our work is not done” said ACLU of RI cooperating attorney James Rhodes. “Participation in free and fair elections, whether it be for president, state legislature or local fire district, is the cornerstone of our democracy.”
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Published on June 9, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The ACLU of Rhode Island on Wednesday filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of a lawsuit challenging a policy of the Bonnet Shores Fire District (BSFD) in Narragansett that bars residents from voting if they own less than $400 of property in the district, while allowing thousands of non-resident beach cabana owners – including those owning sixteen square feet “cabanas” of “bathhouses” that fall far short of minimum dwelling standards and are used primarily for equipment storage – to exercise the right.

The BSFD annual meeting and election is on Saturday, June 24, 2021. (See flyer below)

In 1841 Thomas Wilson Dorr led the Dorr Rebellion in an attempt to expand voting rights beyond the white male property owning elites of Rhode Island, and though the rebellion failed, the greater point eventually won out. In 1928 the Rhode Island General Assembly finally repealed municipal property requirements limiting the right to vote in municipal elections.

The ACLU of RI’s brief, filed by cooperating attorneys James Rhodes and Lynette Labinger, notes that the Fire District “exercises broad government powers” that include the adoption of “ordinances whose violation may be punished with fines and terms of imprisonment.” The brief argues that in “restricting the right to vote to certain ‘property owners,’ the BSFD follows in a long, justifiably discredited, history in this country and state in restricting the right to vote to a favored class.” Among those excluded from voting are individuals who rent property within the district or are spouses or adult children of title holders.

In their brief the ACLU of RI labels BSFD’s restriction on the right to vote to property owners “a throwback to earlier, long-discredited notions of who is entitled to participate in our state and local government.” The ACLU of RI discussion of the history of voting rights in the brief in Rhode Island makes for interesting reading.

“The charter of the Bonnet Shores Fire District appears caught in a time loop that has ignored the evolution of voting rights in the United States and Rhode Island since it was first enacted in 1932,” writes the ACLU of RI in their brief. “This relic of a period of widespread disenfranchisement is unconstitutional and cannot endure.”

The lawsuit should come as no surprise to the BSFD. In August of 2019 the Rhode Island Secretary of State‘s office sent a letter to BSFD Board Chair Michael Vendetti explaining that the fire district’s voting provisions conflicts with a 1981 Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling, Flynn v King, regarding voting rights of residents of the West Glocester Fire District.

The Secretary of State advised the BFSD to review their charter and make any necessary changes to ensure it is not in conflict with the Supreme Court decision, but when a motion was made by board member Anita Langer discuss the Secretary of State’s letter at a BSFD board meeting, no one on the board seconded the motion and the topic was shelved. (Anita Langer did not respond to UpriseRI’s attempts to contact her in time for this story.)

Flash forward to April 2020 when seven plaintiffs – Mary Burke Patterson, Robert E Patterson, Melissa Jenkins, Valerie Ann Henry, Paula Childs, David H Stenmark, and Carol M Stenmark – bring a lawsuit against the fire district.

Melissa Jenkins tells UpriseRI that she was “was denied a ballot to vote even though I was a registered voter who lives full time in Bonnet.” Jenkins declined to say more given that the lawsuit is in process. In response to the lawsuit the BFSD board voted to retain Tom Dickinson as legal counsel to answer the complaint and provide a “projection of future costs” to fight the lawsuit.

“Expanding the right to vote to all people has been a critical multi-generational fight here and across the country,” said ACLU of RI cooperating attorney James Rhodes. “Until every one of our local governments are elected by the people they serve, our work is not done. Participation in free and fair elections, whether it be for president, state legislature or local fire district, is the cornerstone of our democracy.”

UpriseRI reached out to historian Rory Raven, who wrote the book, The Dorr War: Treason, Rebellion and the Fight for Reform in Rhode Island in 2010.

“Voting rights have not been dependent upon property ownership in Rhode Island since 1843,” said Raven to UpriseRI. “Governor Thomas Wilson Dorr, a reformer and a hero too often overlooked, literally led the charge to expand voting rights to include those who did not own land.

“[Dorr] recognized the injustice of denying the vote on such arbitrary grounds, and understood that restricting the vote would produce an unrepresentative government, which would only lead to further injustices,” concluded Raven. “He was a man ahead of his time, and trying to return to the bad old days of property-requirements would probably just make him roll over in his grave.”

Pictured at the top is a statue of Thomas Wilson Dorr on display at the Rhode Island State House.

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