Located over 20 miles off the coast of Maine, Matinicus Island is often among the first communities in the state to report their official vote counts. It doesn’t take long, explains clerk and registrar of voters Eva Murray, because they have so few registered voters. “Out of the 70 active voters, I’ve already handed out 26 ballots,” she says.
In addition to running the election, Murray also runs the solid waste program, operates a bakery out of her house, works as a freelance writer and is a certified pilot and EMT. She knows most everyone on Matinicus, and most everyone knows her. There seems to be little confusion about how, logistically, to submit a ballot on the island. She predicts a “good turnout” this year.
Although the ferry runs only 30 or so times a year, it is possible to get on and off the island via plane, and that’s how the paper ballots will get to Rockland city hall if there is any call for a recount. Otherwise, the islanders’ votes are collected, counted and reported on Matinicus at the town office. The results are sent “by both computer and fax”, explains Murray, “to the secretary of state’s office, bureau of elections, in Augusta, just like any other town.” She takes great pride in this process, and stresses that they’re a small community, but they’re committed to “doing it right”.
Before the global pandemic, “doing it right” typically involved donuts at the town office, paper ballots and a very short wait (if any) to color in the bubbles. This year, things are a little different, both because of the implementation of ranked choice voting (which allows Maine voters to rank all state and federal candidates from most preferred to least), and because of Covid-19.
Fortunately, Matinicus has been virtually untouched by the virus, thanks to its remote location and small population. “They issued me a mask, I haven’t put it on yet, but when I go vote I will,” says island resident Bill Hoadley. “When I vote it will be the first time I’ve worn a mask.”
The choice not to wear a mask isn’t as politicized on Matinicus as it is elsewhere in the state. However, Matinicus Isle Plantation typically does skew Republican, though you wouldn’t know that from walking around town. While neighborhoods throughout rural Maine have been taken over with red, white and blue signs advocating for political candidates (and some off-color ones advocating for nobody) as of mid-October, there was only one house on the island openly supporting their preferred party.
According to residents, people here are more likely to talk about topics that immediately affect their remote community – including and especially the weather – than the nebulous, divisive world of politics. “People don’t discuss it much,” says a seventh-generation Matinicus lobsterman who is particularly passionate about environmental issues that affect his trade. “We know who the Trump supporters are, and people like me who aren’t, we aren’t going to change their minds,” he says.
When you live on an island, it’s important to be able to get along with your neighbor. You never know when you might need their help. “Everyone out here is definitely an individual or they wouldn’t live here,” adds Ann Mitchell, who works as a nurse, drives a taxi, and (when needed) helps catch raccoons. “It’s challenging, a lot of the time, to get food or medicine out here.” Murray points out that even the island’s younger population is used to pitching in whenever needed. “They learn a lot of practical skills,” she says. “Kids administer first aid, they dig graves, they do whatever needs to be done.”
Matinicus may appear to be a quaint, sweet little New England town, but that’s not the whole story. It’s also not the lawless, wild pioneer village some have made it out to be. It’s true that the community has no police force, and it’s true that the island doesn’t have a single store. But residents are quick to assure outsiders that, yes, they are part of the greater world and, yes, they are very much affected by what goes on in Washington.
“I think people feel very connected to state and federal systems,” says Mitchell, who switched political parties this year for the first time in her adult life. “For 52 years, I was one party,” she says. But although she’s “sorry to have had to do that”, Mitchell’s decision shows how all Americans, even ones living on remote islands, are feeling about this election. “We’re out here on an island surrounded by water, but we are still affected by who makes the choices and by the constitution,” she explains. Anxious to have her vote submitted, Mitchell voted early. “I felt so happy and so relieved that my name and my vote was on that ballot, and it was sealed, and I just said goodbye to it, and hope it makes a difference,” she says.
While rumblings of voter fraud and election day intimidation have been heard across the country, Clayton Philbrook feels confident that his vote will be cast and counted without a hitch. “There won’t be any Trump supporters out here trying to intimidate voters like there might be on the mainland,” he says. “It takes a lot to intimidate me, and I’m not black or brown, so they probably wouldn’t bother me anyway.” Like most residents of Matinicus, Philbrook seems to be a highly informed voter, interested in local and national politics. “I have a lot of time out on the water to think about these issues, and I read extensively online,” explains the lobsterman.
Philbrook’s vote, along with Mitchell’s and Hoadley’s and Murray’s, will get counted after polls close at 8pm on 3 November. The scene is typically a cozy one. Just like everywhere else, poll workers end their day with a count, which for this island will number somewhere in the tens. “Even in a busy year, we are only counting 50 ballots,” Murray says. “We may break our own record this year.” But even with all that action, there’s still time for food. “There’s always someone that brings a hot supper to us ballot clerks, like a moose stew in a crock pot or homemade mac and cheese,” she says.
And then, she adds: “I’ll still probably make donuts, but people will have to take it with them.”