Three towns where democracy thrives

In a college town like Berkeley, Loraine Lundquist's decision to throw a party on Saturday night was nothing out of the ordinary. The invitation, however, was a bit unusual.

"We'll meet at 4:30 p.m.," it read. "Please choose a ballot initiative to research in depth, beyond the standard 'yes' and 'no' summaries.... Consider checking out the history behind the initiative, articles in the local news, etc."

That night, the last laptop shut down at 10:30 p.m. In five hours of consternation spent hunching over scraps of paper, Ms. Lundquist had run through her three pages of hand-scrawled notes on Proposition 49 – which would fund before- and after-school programs – and sampled cookies shaped like California bears. Her husband had shocked himself with the revelation that he'd vote for at least one Republican.

And a friend, looking the part of an insurgent in his knit hat and orange T-shirt, had cross-referenced every measure with endorsements culled from political websites and local papers. And he'd realized he won't vote for any of them.

This is democracy, Berkeley style. Today, when many states are forecasting voter turnouts to rival historic lows, Berkeley is a window into communities where politics is still a passion – from the New Hampshire foothills to the Big Sky of Montana.

In many ways, these places have little in common. Traditionally, the whitest and northernmost states send a greater percentage of voting-age populations to the polls. But this trend doesn't always hold true for cities and counties. Deep traditions of civic involvement can cut across every regional and cultural line – embracing ranchers and retirees, immigrants and activists.

The prescription for greater voter engagement that emerges is obvious: a sense of community. At a time when many voters claim that they feel detached from the political process, the lesson from these places is that a strong sense of connectedness – though college, church, or clubs – breeds greater involvement.

"[Voting] is a very social kind of activity," says David Epstein, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York. "You need some local institution that keeps people interested in politics."

In Berkeley, there's little choice. The sense of community, emanating from the university, and thriving in cafes, flows from 1960s activism. This was the first city to ban business dealings with apartheid-era South Africa, the first to create curb ramps for wheelchairs, the first to ban smoking in public places, the first to voluntarily desegregate schools, a leader of the free-speech and feminist movements, and home of the Black Panthers.

As such, Berkeley has long seen local government – and elections – as a way to influence the world. This year, voters are considering a measure that would make Berkeley the first city to mandate that all brewed coffee be from organic, shade-grown, or "fair trade" beans. The provisions are intended to reduce rain forest clear-cutting and improve foreign workers' pay.

"In terms of what you might call the mood and style of the 1960s, Berkeley is one place that it still has a relevance," says historian Charles Wollenberg. "It attracts the kind of people who get active in politics."

Party organizer Lundquist and her husband – who both came to attend the university – are no exception. They included a list of charities on the registry for their recent wedding, and Lundquist says she's never missed voting in a major election. In the end, she says, she was disappointed at the party turnout: six people. Then again, more than half the people she asked declined because they had already voted by mail.

While there is no national ranking of voter turnout for localities, Berkeley's 76 percent voter turnout in 2000 is widely acclaimed – especially for a diverse city of 100,000.

The city motto could be "grass roots." In this year's mayoral race, the two challengers debated each other almost 30 times. The city has 48 boards and commissions; neighboring Oakland has five. Its city council meetings, school board meetings, and rent board meetings are on local TV.

"People are so passionate because we encourage their participation in every possible position," says Mayor Shirley Dean.

Social threads of Sandwich

Elsewhere, however, this participation does not always take on such an activist sheen.

Amid the granite foothills of the White Mountains, Sandwich, N.H. – with its one flashing stoplight and two slender white steeples – hardly seems a place that could shake an African regime or the coffee industry. In this town of many retirees, the only epic battle on a recent November day is on the town's tennis court, where a doubles match rages, despite the ice-covered puddles nearby.

Nearby, inside the white-clapboard town hall, Spencer Martin is helping run the city. Today, he's sorting files as the voluntary sewer commissioner. Other days, he's a part of a group that bought and is reviving the run-down Country Store. Or he's a member of the Caregivers, a group that delivers meals to older residents.

Here, politics might be less glamorous, but each connection is more intimate. The threads of a different activism – that of a dozen social clubs and civic obligations – knit this town together.

"This is a pretty active town," says Mr. Martin, who will help make sure homebound residents get to the polls today.

In the last election, 80 percent of eligible residents voted. Indeed, in a town of 1,112 with close ties, there are Election Day expectations to fulfill. Bethany Powers has felt them since she and her husband moved here recently. They have every intention of going to the polls today. But in case they're tempted to skip voting amid busy schedules, they figure they'll get a reminder.

"In a small town, people take care of you," she says. And since one of their neighbors works at the town hall, she adds, "If we don't show up, they'll definitely notice" – and will probably make a friendly phone call.

Antelope and activism

Far away in Ringling, Mont., missing voters are even more conspicuous. Along Highway 89, antelope scamper across the asphalt more often than cars. This tiny cluster of weathered frame houses, mobile homes, and cattle sheds is home to only 40 people.

But that's what makes Election Day so important, say locals. For decades, this depressed farming community on Montana's treeless high plains has lost most of what it once was to distant cities. Voting is one thing that makes rural citizens feel equal to their urban counterparts.

During a summer primary, 62 percent of registered voters in surrounding Meagher County cast a ballot. In Missoula and Gallatin Counties – the second and fifth most populous in the state – the figures were 14 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

"Everybody around here still honestly believes their vote counts," says Darin Bushnell, owner of J.T.'s Supper Club, the only town business, where citizens thrash out world affairs. "If an issue passes or a person gets elected, they like to think it was their vote that made a difference."

Today, the polls will open a few paces away at the country school, and folks think the turnout in Ringling – named for a founder of the famous circus – could top 80 percent. It's a universe removed from the eucalyptus groves and Italianate monoliths of the Berkeley campus. But the motive to feel a sense of belonging and touch a broader world is the same.

"Voting is a social event," says Brownie Park, a local ranch hand. "It reminds us who is still here."

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