Free and Fair Elections
By Eva Murray
Created Nov 12 2007 - 10:23am
We get a lot of undeserved sympathy, we poor ballot clerks, when it is Election Day on Matinicus Island and the dusty Old Schoolhouse is filled with the smells of coffee and doughnuts.
I have described in other places the absurdity inherent in trying to force our realities onto the template of a large municipality; how that department of the state which oversees such things wants us to make every two-step procedure into a ten-step procedure involving electronics, and how reporters like to call from Portland and make inquiries such as "How many people live on Matinicus?"
We give them the 2000 census figure, arbitrary and meaningless, that being precisely 51, and then they ask "How many registered voters do you have?" and we reply, with accuracy and alacrity, "93."
Uh huh. Soon the phone rings again, and they start in: "I think I must have written this down wrong…you said…"
No, you didn't do anything wrong.
It's all about that question of who actually "lives here," and what, in fact, do you mean by "live here" anyway, when the majority of the island's fishermen have a mainland home now also, and are back and forth all winter, and we get very few true tourists but lots of part-timers, seasonal residents often with family ties or decades of island connection but no water after freeze-up, or former schoolteachers who got bitten by the island bug and hate to disconnect entirely, or, for some reason, that small but conspicuous special demographic made up of refugee lawyers who do not wish to practice law. Our voter list is heavy with the names of people who want to vote in annual town meeting in April, because it is here that they own the majority of their property, or at least their relatives do, and it is here that they care how that money is spent. They can vote absentee for President; most of them ignore the rest of it entirely.
The rules indicate that there are to be at least three present at the election, the registrar, and a ballot clerk from each major political party. I have been the clerk and registrar for most of the past decade, but was lucky enough to be able to convince and nominate Jasmine to take the job at the last town meeting…she a very straightforward and organized sort, computer literate, neat of desk and not easily manipulated by the freeloaders who want their hunting license today but will gladly pay for it next Tuesday. With Jasmine as registrar this year, and me as just an ordinary ballot clerk and unpaid deputy back-up seller of dog licenses and such, the relevant state department is thoroughly confused as to who is in charge of the computer.
Higher by far on our list of priorities, here on the island, are the home-baked refreshments, the provision of a hot supper for the poll workers, the ready supply of adequate kerosene to heat the old former one-room schoolhouse all day while a November storm blusters outside, and remembering to bring the pliers with the wire-cutter for the seal on the blue steel box, in which the voted ballots are kept after the polls close, legally locked up in case of the need of recount. I have learned to make myself a sticky note days before the election: "Bring the wire cutters." Jasmine, being a bit more organized and not married to an electrician, made the statement that perhaps the small petty cash fund could swing a cheap pair of pliers to be left in the desk. Indeed.
The poll workers ought also to be people who don't mind each other's company, as there are often long stretches of time with no voters in the room. This year we actually had a surprisingly high turnout for a no-candidate election; perhaps the bad weather, which prevented most from going out to haul, brought them in. We like to think the cookies and the doughnuts help, but that would be me again, thinking with my stomach; perhaps not everybody's way. We had a turnout of 28 plus one absentee ballot, nearly a third of the voter list.
We frequently get this question: "Can't you talk everybody into coming and voting early so you guys can leave? With such a small town, can't everybody just get it done, like over there in Dixville Notch?"
In short, no. The majority of the voter list is not here. They're never all here. As much as we try to do a list purge from time to time, there are always former sternmen who will never be back. There are always lobstermen and other property owners who only care about town meeting and are on the mainland half the time. There are always the sons and daughters of the huge local ancestral family who, without address or feet on the ground here, still maintain their connection with Matinicus, whether it be psychological, emotional, or piratical, and do not bother with anything that smacks of paperwork but who are indignant, to say the least, if one should suggest that they "don't really live here." Then there's that guy Bill who lives in Italy, but who is a U.S. citizen, and uses this place for his address because he has relatives here and no other logical U.S. address. He is not likely to show up to vote on the bond issues.
We set up the polls and then we make the coffee. We knit, we snack, we visit, we do odd jobs which we've brought along. I get three hours of bookkeeping done; Kathleen makes labels for her business, Jasmine finishes a book. We try to eat our apples but there are those peanut butter cups left over from Halloween…One voter brings gossip, another brings a funny story. Thankfully, this time, there is minimal wrath and ire about fights on the water, about the wardens and those guys from other islands and lunatics and lawyers. We hear talk about the book club, and how to most humanely get rid of unwanted four-footed critters, about Emily's dress for the big dance and Peter's cat down south who brought a copperhead into the house. This all sounds really trite but it's actually a big help, because we are more or less trapped, and if somebody came in with an ax to grind or a lecture to force upon us, we'd feel just a bit underpaid. Instead, it is a day of structured idling, with the privilege of assisting in the democratic process. One voter brings his little son, who clings to Dad's legs while he'd trying to vote until I break out the box of matchbox cars. Later in the afternoon, Suzanne gets a lesson on the spinning wheel (there are four of us on the island, to a greater or lesser degree, who spin, and raising a glass to the Wednesday Spinners group down east, we are, I suppose "the Tuesday spinners" as we only seem to get together on Election Days.)
So no sympathy is needed, thank you, it's not a bad duty at all. Robin brought her golden retriever and Weston brought in the stuffed shells that Jasmine had prepared and Paul brought warm bread and I'd left the rocking chair in the town office since the last election back in June. We counted up, did the paperwork, called the newspapers, and were out of there by 9:00 p.m. By then, the storm had passed, and the stars were out. I pointed out a couple of things in the night sky to Jasmine, and everybody piled into their trucks with the dirty dishes and went home, all of two- or three-minutes drive away.
<I>Eva Murray is one of the election staff at Matinicus Isle Plantation, where they promise 'never a hanging chad.' </I>