Guest Column

Count Me In
Yea or nay? A town's character hung in the balance

Illustration of woman dropping vote into ballot box
Illustration by Beth Krommes

It was getting late, and the town meeting crowd was growing weary. We had debated long, and sometimes bitterly, about health insurance for the fire department and salary increases for the police. We'd spent $50,000 on a land conservation project in the Mink Hills, bought a $66,400 dump truck, and voted to cough up $42,000 to fix a 22-year-old fire engine.

Then came the warrant article for buying a new vote-counting machine. Or--excuse me--an "Optical Scan Vote Tabulating System."

We balked.

The thing cost a mere $6,350. We didn't care.

Warner, N.H., is a town of 2,883 people, nestled on the flank of Mt. Kearsarge.

It has been a tourist town ("snow trains" once disgorged Bostonians here on winter weekends), a farming town (sheep and apples) and a small manufacturing center (everything from wooden boxes to solar panels).

Warner is still a community unto itself, but like many New Hampshire towns, it is also a suburb. Commuters leave each morning for Concord, Manchester, Lebanon, Boston. In the past decade or so, dozens of new houses have risen from old horse pastures. McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts moved in. The post office installed digital scales. We built a new police station outside the village center. Our beloved Perkins Hardware, the cornerstone of Main Street (a building that had been a hardware store since before Lincoln freed the slaves), was sold to a chain.

We share the disquieting sense that the changes wrought by this barrage against community--the creeping pox of chain stores, the hours spent commuting, the digitizing--are inevitable and, if we're not careful, may be irrevocable.

But here is how we vote: We line up at the door to Town Hall. We state our names to Joann, who hands us our paper ballots. In a curtained booth, we pencil an X beside the candidates of our choice. We state our names again, this time to Judy, our town clerk. Then we nod to Ray, the town moderator, as we deposit our ballots inside the ancient wooden ballot box.

Polls close at 7 p.m. Then the counting begins. Volunteer counters come from all over town: from Waterloo and from Pumpkin Hill, from Newmarket and Joppa.

Four to a table, volunteers count a single stack of ballots, two reading, two recording, to ensure accuracy. It is meticulous work. During breaks, there is laughter and small talk. When the ballots are counted, double-checked and secured--usually by about 9:30 p.m. for local elections--everybody helps set up chairs for town meeting the next night. And when the vote-counters cross paths around town, they know each other.

With the new counting machine, results would be instant. Polls would close at 7 p.m. By 7:05--one push of a button--we'd know the outcome. Presto! No fuss, no mess, no counting. No need for volunteers. And one more blow to community.

We realized, as the debate wore on, that this was something we could control. The voice vote was passionate, the "No's!" shouting our dislike to the rafters. The hand-count was decisive: we voted down the voting machine, 95-59.

We are not anti-technology here--nor would we seek to keep new neighbors from moving to town. But Warner has an abundance of what sociologists call "social capital"--the connections that make people healthier and happier, that make communities safer. People invested in their communities tend to vote and to show up for town meeting.

But to make those connections, you need to know your neighbors. We still have the chance to do that. We still have town sports teams and a diner and a volunteer fire department and an independent bookstore whose proprietors know our names. When we stand in line to vote alongside new neighbors, we can recruit them to work at our annual Fall Foliage Festival. And while we're working together at the festival, we can remind them to come to town meeting. At town meeting, they may find themselves volunteering to count votes. This sense of community is exactly why people like living here.

So, on election nights, we will continue to roll up our sleeves and count votes by hand. It may not be an efficient way to tally an election. But it is an effective way to keep community alive. ~

Lois Shea '95G is a former Boston Globe staff writer.

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