Friday, October 31, 2008

Faith in old ladies

A few weeks ago, Bill Nemitz of the Portland Press Herald wrote a marvelous column about town clerks and voting in Maine. You can look at it here. The gist of it was that clerks in Maine are not likely to be ruffled by national scrutiny if it turns out that the whole election rests on the one electoral vote in Maine's Second Congressional District. See, Maine splits its electoral votes, unlike most states, so in a bizarre fantasy world, it could happen. Not likely, but whatever. It was a great column, and he put voice to what many of us know to be true: Maine Town Clerks are not to be trifled with.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the occasion to visit with an old colleague/competitor at her vacation place up in Machias. We worked at competing daily newspapers many years ago but have remained friendly. She is a hardened veteran of daily news reporting, and I was a neophyte right out of college, more accustomed to being IN the news as a protester or activist than writing the news from the other side of the notebook. I still scooped her once or twice. Back then, that was the highlight of my month. But anyway, we laughed and talked and told stories over a homemade meal. I mentioned the Nemitz column and we both agreed with his assessment.

See, most people view voting process and procedure as some murky thing done in back rooms by scary people with axes to grind. S and I know, and truly, any reporter who has ever covered a small town election day knows, that town clerks, particularly town clerks in small Maine towns, hold few things in higher regard than the election process. I know of no clerk who was more partisan than she was clerk. I cannot imagine it. These women - for most of them are women - might be ardent supporters of one candidate over another, of one party over another, but never - and I do mean NEVER - would they compromise the integrity of the voting and counting process. Period.

These old gals (for many of them are seniors) are the keepers of democracy in its purest form. They are the pith and marrow of democracy in Maine, and truly, in America. If their candidate loses by one vote in their town, then he loses by one vote. Period. That's all there is to it. There is no wiggling of the votes. There is no fenagling of anything. The votes were cast. They were counted. The numbers are the numbers and the clerks dutifully call them in to the Bangor Daily News and to the local candidates when the tally is done. In Maine, the BDN has historically been the agency that works with the Secretary of State's office to compile and tally vote totals all over Maine. Darned if I know why, but that's how it is done here.

So anyway, S and I got to talking about town clerks we'd known over the years. A favorite was an old battle-axe of a woman out in B, Maine. God bless dear CM, she's still kicking around in municipal government, so I won't name names or actual locations. CM is legendary among town clerks in that section of Maine. For years and years, she kept all municipal documents in her kitchen, tax stuff, car registration stuff, hunting licenses, fishing licenses, everything, right there in boxes and file cabinets. On Halloween night, she'd be up late, not giving out candy, but issuing hunting licenses for deer season that starts at dawn on November 1. She ran the whole town and dispatched the volunteer fire and rescue and ambulance service as well. She ran well-baby clinics and kept an eye on who was in need and who was building without a permit. One year, when things were particularly contentious in town, she was asked to moderate the annual town meeting.

Now in Maine, the annual town meeting is a thing unlike any other. Voters get together to decide the entire municipal budget and to approve or reject any major policy issues, decide on roads and schools and local emergency services. And then there is often a potluck dinner when it is done. Town meeting is serious stuff. And in small towns, it behooves residents to disagree without being disagreeable, because the guy you're shouting at in debate is going to be the one driving the fire truck when your house is burning. So anyway, CM was asked to moderate in a year when emotions were high.

She arrived and took the podium as moderators do. She set aside the gavel and gave the podium a sharp rap with her rolling pin. "Now listen," the legend has her cautioning the opposing groups assembled in the grange hall, "the first one of you bahstids to step outta line gets smacked in the head." She brandished the rolling pin again.

The budget was decided in record time and everyone enjoyed the luncheon. Or else.

With such formidable women in charge of counting votes, I have more faith in the democratic process here in the rural parts of our nation than I have in the more urban areas where women with rolling pins are not guarding the process.

ADDENDUM: I have just learned that a new municipal clerk WITH THE SAME NAME as the one in this story is running things in town B. Apparently there is no family connection. But you know what? I still won't disclose the identity of the woman in the story. Because she is more typical of Maine Town Clerks than not. She could be any town clerk in any tiny town anywhere in Maine. And that's what I love about Maine.


laughingatchaos said...

THIS is the sort of woman we need in politics, for the very reasons you mentioned. Not Moose-Hunting Barbie or Borrow My Pair Hillary. The strong, put up with no shit, take charge woman. Not enough of those around.

Robin said...

They certainly do feel like a force to be reckoned with.

My folks attended their first New England town meeting last year. It's an amazing process, especially for those of us who grew up in much larger places.

Carlita said...

I love this post! We had a lady like that in my town, too. Too bad we didn't have a few of them running for national office.

Queers United said...

i dont have faith in anyone, im so scared if obama loses

Infinitely Possible said...

I have to say that one of the things that was said about me in a community of gamers I played with for a decade was that I'm a force to be reckoned with. And while I live in a giant city, I'm helping with elections again this year. And I'm fierce about making sure people can vote!

Infinitely Possible said...
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