November 3, 2013

How Maine towns stack up at the voting booth

Which towns have the best turnout, or have the most Republicans or Democrats? The results are finally in.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — Tuesday’s off-year election may not be the most significant in recent years, but hundreds of thousands of Mainers will no doubt see it as their civic duty to cast a ballot.

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Kennebunkport Town Clerk April Dufoe does everything she can to encourage voting in her town. And it shows.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Maine typically sees some of the highest voter turnouts in the country. The scene at the polls, however, is sure to vary from town to town.

The Maine Sunday Telegram looked at voter registration and election data from the past two years to find out where in the state residents are most – and least – likely to visit a voting booth. We also found which towns stand out as the most Republican, the most Democratic and the most independent. And then we asked why.

KENNEBUNKPORT: HIGHEST TURNOUT

On the edge of the town center, on the way to Walker’s Point, the summer home of former President George H.W. Bush, George Geyerhahn’s puggle, Lilly, romped down the hallway of the Town Office, her loose leash dragging between her legs.

There are two things the staff here pays extra attention to: dogs and democracy.

“I will do anything and everything I can to encourage voter turnout,” said Town Clerk April Dufoe, after handing a treat over the counter to Lilly, who stood ready on her hind legs.

For that reason, it didn’t come as a surprise to Dufoe that Kennebunkport had a higher turnout rate in the last two November elections than any other Maine town with more than 1,000 registered voters.

In the off-year election of 2011, 59 percent of the town’s 2,569 voters came out to the polls to weigh in on questions about gambling and same-day voter registration. Last year, nine out of 10 registered voters cast ballots for president.

The statistics were right in front of Dufoe in a manila folder on her desk. But she could spout those numbers and more without looking. There was a 92 percent turnout rate for the 2004 election and, in 2008, 45 percent of the ballots cast were absentee, she said.

“I think it’s fun,” she said about the data.

But it’s about much more than that for her, too.

“It’s the democratic way,” said Dufoe, this year’s recipient of the Secretary of State’s Lorraine M. Fleury Award for significant contribution to the election process.

The more people who vote, she said, the better it works. “You know it’s the will of the people.”

As Dufoe handed out absentee ballots to voters at the Town Office on Thursday morning, she also signed them up to have ballots for the school construction bond referendum in January mailed to their homes.

It was the last day of absentee voting, so there was a line.

Geyerhahn renewed Lilly’s dog license while he waited his turn. In front of him were Florence and Rip Emerson, who picked up ballots that they planned to return Monday after taking the weekend to talk over the issues.

David James filled out his ballot right there. He didn’t expect to be too busy to go to the polls on Election Day, but he had nothing better to do Thursday, either.

“It’s a crummy day out,” he said.

Sure, the number of retirees in town – where the median age is 52 – is a factor in the high turnout rate, Dufoe said. But not only because they have the time to pay attention. They also come from an era when there was more patriotism, more pride taken in voting, she said.

There’s no doubt Dufoe is doing her part to reinstill that attitude.

She put a sign outside the fire station – “VOTE HERE TUES” – on Wednesday, the first day she could do it without causing confusion. Sample ballots were posted at the library and the post office. She sent out a newsletter. She updated the town website.

“I want to make sure everyone has their say,” she said.

LIMESTONE: LOWEST VOTER TURNOUT

Patsy Poitras remembers a time when hundreds of residents would pack into the Limestone High School auditorium for the annual town meeting in June.

As the size of the crowd dwindled over the years, she said, the scattered attendees had to be asked to move to the front rows.

“It’s pretty obvious,” said Poitras, 59, about the increase in apathy in the Aroostook County town.

But she wouldn’t expect Limestone to have the lowest voter turnout in the state. Only 51 percent of registered voters went to the polls last year to pick a president. Half as many cast ballots in 2011 – a lower percentage than any other Maine town with more than 1,000 registered voters.

Come to think of it, Poitras doesn’t remember the last time she waited in line to get into a voting booth.

“You’re in, you’re out,” she said about going to the polls on Election Day.

Town Clerk Marlene Durepo has noticed a similar trend. The local political parties were once “quite active,” she said. She couldn’t tell you who the committee chairmen are now.

But she doesn’t think the poor turnout rate can be blamed solely on ennui.

Since the closure of Loring Air Force Base in 1994, many people have left town but may not have been taken off the rolls. In addition to them are the students at Loring Job Corps, an educational and career training program on the redeveloped base, where young adults typically spend a couple of years and then take off.

If they register in another Maine town, Durepo is notified.

“If they go home to Connecticut, or wherever, I have no way of knowing,” she said.

Still, there’s been a noticeable shift in attitude, Poitras said. Voters’ passivity is palpable.

“A lot of people complain about taxes being high and what not, but when it’s voting time, they don’t go vote,” she said. “They pretty much say, ‘Well, it wouldn’t matter.’ ”

GRAND ISLE: MOST DEMOCRATIC

Troy Jackson remembers hearing a story about Grand Isle when he first ran for the Maine Senate six years ago.

The rule for hand-counting ballots was that the two clerks couldn’t be affiliated with the same political party. The problem was they couldn’t find a Republican to do it. So someone had to volunteer to enroll in the GOP.

Jackson, D-Allagash, who represents the St. John Valley town, said he politely pointed out that simply unenrolling would have sufficed.

But that wouldn’t have made as good a story.

Among Grand Isle’s 306 registered voters, Democrats number 208, or 68 percent, the largest proportion of any Maine town – followed by Frenchville and Madawaska, nearby towns along the Canadian border.

Lynn Beaulieu, who runs a hair salon out of her house by the river, said she thinks of party affiliation as a hereditary trait, passed down through generations. And almost every family in Grand Isle goes back several of them.

“Your parents were Democrats; it’s just assumed you would be a Democrat,” she said.

When asked for a possible explanation, Jackson recalled another story.

Back in the day, he’s been told, all the mill owners were Republican. Voting was done openly and they made sure to observe. Feeling pressure, workers voted to appease their employers.

“When it went to secret ballot, they kind of revolted,” Jackson said.

Or so he’s been told.

“I don’t know if that’s accurate,” he quickly added.

But it makes sense and carries on today in Maine’s logging communities, he said.

“Republicans support large landowners, Democrats support workers,” he said. “It doesn’t get any clearer than that.”

OSBORN: MOST REPUBLICAN

Along Route 179, up from Ellsworth, is a cluster of houses that make up most of the town of Osborn.

“We only have 69 voters and that’s with horses and dogs and cats,” said Diane Haskell, who’s in charge of accounts payable at Magoon’s Transportation.

The actual number is 51 and, of them, 33 are Republican, giving the tiny Hancock County town the largest share of GOP voters of anywhere in the state at 65 percent.

“It’s kind of shocking to me,” said John Reed, whose family owns Reed Firewood and Custom Lumber in town.

But then again, he was hard-pressed to think of anyone from Osborn who wasn’t a Republican.

“I am, my father is, my mother is, my sister is, her boyfriend is,” he said.

Sandy Rogers said she found out that most townspeople were Republican when she became the town clerk.

“I honestly didn’t care before then,” she said.

Rogers, who also works at Magoon’s, speculated with Haskell last week about why Osborn residents lean the way they do.

They reached a conclusion quickly; it came down to money.

“Democrats like to spend lots of money,” Haskell said.

Rogers corrected her.

“No, they like to give it away,” she said.

BUCKFIELD MOST INDEPENDENT

The town of Buckfield has a slogan on its website: “Where good people live.”

Don’t dare try to tell them otherwise.

“Most of the people, I’ve found in the town, have very strong opinions,” said Selectwoman Martha Catevenis.

And those opinions, she said, don’t necessarily align with one political school of thought.

“They’re not party positions,” she said.

Although the town, outside of Lewiston, is represented by Democrats in the state Senate and House of Representatives, more voters are registered as Republican.

Most, however, are unenrolled – 54 percent of them, more than any other town in the state.

To Catevenis, that statistic is proof of something she already knew, that people in Buckfield are “very, very independent,” she said.

To Tony Bachelder, it means something different.

“I feel that, really, it don’t matter what party you are, they’re all a bunch of rip-offs. It’s the one who can give you the best story,” he said.

Bachelder, a beekeeper, said a lot of Buckfield residents are self-employed and likely vote the way they think their business will benefit most.

Several of those businesses are listed on the town’s website. There’s insulation, excavation, a garage and a gun shop.

Calls to a couple of them couldn’t confirm Bachelder’s theory. One owner declined to comment. Another hung up the phone.

Bachelder, a registered Democrat who tends to vote Republican, admitted he’s one of the more outspoken people in town.

He associates residents’ lack of party affiliation with frustration more than open-mindedness.

“Everybody’s looking for change and we ain’t getting it,” he said.

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: lbridgers@pressherald.com Twitter: lesliebridgers

 

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