SOMETIMES I feel that Maine's grandeur lies not so much in her woodlands and waterways as in her polling places.
We recently had a municipal election up here, and although the balloting is now more than a month behind me, I still feel about as refreshed as I did upon emerging from the voting booth and marching out to meet the day - a day that I felt I had singlehandedly changed as a result of my personal ballot.
Voting in a small New England town has a wonderful air of sociability about it, underlain, of course, by the gravity of the task at hand. In one of the first Maine towns I lived in, about eight years ago, the polling place was on an island in the Penobscot River.
The building itself was about the size of a log cabin. Crowding or standing in line was never a problem, for the voting district it served was small indeed. This immediate accessibility put the voter in a positive frame of mind right off. The ballot clerks were three venerable older ladies who had served at elections for most of their lives. When I walked in that first time, they were reminiscing about the Hoover administration.
I was the only customer at that moment, and this eager triumvirate sprang upon me with a zeal born of absolute faith in a system that had kept their party in office through thick and thin. This personal attention was unanticipated, but what came next was the icing on the cake. Literally.
The three took me by both arms and escorted me to a folding table stacked with homemade doughnuts and coffee. As I ate and drank, they wrung their hands with the joy of mothers watching a son fatten on home cooking.
Having been dutifully fed, I was led - again, by both arms - to the voting booth, a folding affair able to accommodate four conscientious citizens. Each person's solitude was guaranteed by a red, white, and blue curtain.
Before me lay the ballot itself - an actual piece of paper bearing the weighty questions of the hour: Should a new sewer line be strung through the town at the risk of a bond issue? Should the town dump be kept open another year? Should we construct a new town hall, one that wouldn't cost local taxpayers a dime? (Another way in which polling places are magical.) There were also several minor officials vying for reelection, some unopposed, as they had been in the previous election.
A sign taped to the wall of the booth read, ``PLEASE! DO NOT REMOVE THIS PENCIL! IF THERE IS NO PENCIL IN THE BOOTH, NOTIFY A BALLOT CLERK IMMEDIATELY!'' But this wasn't necessary, as there was indeed a pencil in my booth - a No. 2 (``USE A NUMBER TWO SOFT PENCIL ONLY!'') Dixon Ticonderoga tied down with a piece of kite string. I picked up the instrument and began to fill out my ballot. This was done by connecting the two halves of a broken arrow either in favor of or against the candidate or referendum question.
As I moved down the ballot, connecting arrows, someone stepped into the booth next to me. He or she soon fell deeply into the deliberation of the voting process, leaning hard on the little counter on which the ballot lay, for the entire row of four booths soon began to sway. It was not unpleasant, akin to being on a rolling sea, and lent emphasis to the very physical process of filling out a ballot in a small Maine town. In New Jersey, where I had grown up, the mechanized chamber, with its endless rows of switches and handles, had seemed to do the voting for me. But in my little swaying booth, my hands still sticky from my doughnut and my pencil freshly sharpened and securely tethered, I felt as if I were personally determining the outcome of the election. Indeed, at the time I had an almost overwhelming compulsion to sign my ballot.
When I emerged from behind the curtain, the three ladies were there to receive me. They led me to a padlocked oak box with a slit on top. In that moment, my imagination ran away with me. I envisioned the box being hand-carried to Augusta, the state capital, there to be opened by a man wearing a visor. He would lift my ballot, unfold it, and hand it to the governor, who would remark upon my choices and then dutifully record my votes in a leather-bound register, which would be returned, with his imprimatur, to my town.
By the time I voted this past November, things had become more streamlined and a little less homey. The broken arrows are still there, but the pencil has been replaced by an indelible marker, a change that I approve of. (Trust but verify!) And the oak box's successor is a vacuum cleaner-sized machine that sucks the completed ballot out of the voter's hand at the risk of a paper cut.
Some of the questions have become bigger and more modern as well. This time it wasn't anything so trivial as the town dump; it was whether we should send our nuclear waste to Texas. (I voted no, believing that one should clean up one's own dirt.) I have no control over the nature of the questions, but I was poised to verbalize my lament over the loss of the oak ballot box when I was shown to a card table laden with bagels, brownies, and sticky buns. I ate, under duress, but I fully intend to make the ballot box question an issue in the next election.