I live in the town of Tisbury on the People's Republic of Martha's Vineyard, an island loosely affiliated with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Yesterday I went to Tisbury Town Hall, where I obtained and filled out my absentee ballot.
Below the fold: a few observations on my disucssion with the town clerk(s) and small-town Americana.
Yesterday I was filling in as a volunteer at the Island Food Pantry at the Stone Church ("Methodist") from 1:30 to 4:00. Traffic was light, as it usually is this time of year, when people still have seaonsal work.
Meanwhile my wife Betty was over at the parish house of the Baptist Church two blocks away, supervising distribution from the surplus food program. This was the first food distribution of the season from that program.
The relationship of the Food Pantry to the Surplus Food program is in some ways like the relationship of the Beatles to the Stones. (Actually perhaps more like Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, which share some members and sound kinda alike but kinda different. But if you want to know more about that you'll have to read down to the end of this post.) By around 3:00 we had served about 15 clients and things were really slow (in February we'll handle 50).
Anyway, I was concerned that I had never filed the change of address form at Town Hall when we moved last year from one part of town to another. Town Hall is right over there on Spring Street, right next to Roger (the minister)'s house which is next to the Baptist church which is around the corner from the parish house on Williams Street.
Also, Younger Daughter had told me that the Town Clerk had called last week to remind me that I needed to come in to file the form. I was afraid that I was too late.
Town Hall is a white wooden building that looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting of small-town 1950 America. And the clerk's office, which is just inside the front door, continues that feeling. There are wooden desks and chairs and cabinets and an agreeable sense of clutter and tradtion. It doesn't look disorganized, it just looks like an office that has been in use for 60 years.
There were two women there, about 50 years old, who looked vaguely familiar. Of course, it's a small town, and most people look vaguely familiar to me. I said, "I would like to register" and they got this pained look on their faces and said, "sorry, the deadline was two days ago."
"I just want to change my place of residence."
"Oh" they said. And after a brief discussion in which it came up that I was registered in Tisbury, they told me that I could still legally file a change of address form.
"What's your name?"
I told them.
"Oh," they said. "You were on Greenwood but you moved. You didn't fill out the census form. You're Jakob's dad. Doesn't your wife work at the library?"
"Who are you guys, Big Brother?"
"Yes. Did your daughter give you the message that I called to remind you to change your form?"
"Oh, I guess so. A few days ago."
They scolded me like two school teachers ganging up on a wayward third grader.
Then they told me about how they had recently helped my son to register. Now, I knew he had registered, but thought he had done so in Watertown, where he goes to school. He's blind, which is why they remembered him.
So long story longer, I filled out the form, and filled out one for Betty, and then walked down to the parish house for her to sign it, and the women said, "Now, don't just step outside the door and sign it for her, we'll be watching."
When I got back I asked if I could get an absentee ballot. They said that in Massachusetts it wasn't a convenience thing, you actually had to be unable to vote in Tisbury on election day in order to get a ballot. They said that they had been swamped with requests for ballots and had been on the verge of running out until a new supply had come in that day from the Secretary of State.
I often work in Boston on Mondays and Tuesdays, and just found out that I may have to go to San Francisco during election week, so after appropriate pleading on my part they gave me a "request ballot" form. And I got the ballot and filled it out.
On this ballot you mark your vote by using a felt pen to connect two parts of an arrow that point to the name of the person for whom you want to vote.
I asked if registrations were up. They laughed and pointed to a row of binders. One woman held up a binder with a 4-inch spine that was filled to overflowing. "This is requests for absentee ballots," she said. "Normally we get a few dozen."
They said people had been streaming in to register right up to the deadline. The remembered one guy literally running into the office, out of breath. He was 32 years old and had never voted before.
The people in the office were very very professional, for all their familiarity, and did not make any comment about any candidate. But they did say, with a smile, "people do seem to think that it's very, very important to vote in the presidential election this year."
Last time Gore carried Martha's Vineyard. Bush either came in third behind Nader or beat Nader by a few votes. I think it's a pretty safe bet that Kerry will take Martha's Vineyard this time.
I changed my registration from Green to Unenrolled. That means on primary day I can choose whether to vote in the Republican, Democrat, Green or Libertarian primary. Figured that freedom might could come in handy. . .
Anyway, amid all these diaries of voter suppression and registration fraud and all that, I thought you might enjoy a story from a small town where, if you move from Greenwood to Circuit, the Town Clerk calls you up at home to remind you to come in and fill the form so you can vote.
I think I'll have to tell you about the Food Pantry, Surplus Food Program and Vineyard Committee on Hunger some other time. It's another small town tale, which has its funny aspects. My wife is president in the Vineyard Committe on Hunger and we both volunteer at the Food Pantry and we more-or-less run the surplus food prgram ourselves, so suffice it to say that if you ever find yourself on Martha's Vineyard in the cooler months with not enough money to buy food, we can probably help put you in touch with a few bags of groceries.