One thing sums up the 2008 election in Maine for me: signs. Political signs seemed to litter every street corner and yard, which seems ironic in a state that bans roadside billboards. But in this rural state, the plethora of signs speaks to our enthusiastic, independent-minded electorate. Voter turnout in Maine is high, and involvement in town councils and boards is common. It is this local energy that struck me as inspiring and truly American in this election year.
When I lived in New York City, it felt hard to separate state and local politics from national politics. City issues were national issues and vice versa. Often city leaders are seeking the state or even national spotlight, giving them remote, untouchable quality.
In Maine, local politics has an intensity that I’ve not experience elsewhere. The makeup of small towns and districts means you’re almost always voting for a neighbor or friend of a friend. It’s truly the politics of handshakes and knocking on doors Take my own small mid-coast town. My neighbor across the street ran for our local house seat in the Maine state congress; my other neighbor ran for school board director. In the house race, her opponent lived a few neighborhoods over; they share friends, acquaintances and business relationships.
Another example of the personal canvassing was when our democrat candidate for the state senate pulled up to my house one day in an unassuming Honda Civic. I literally did a double take when he handed me the brochure with his picture on it; I thought for sure he was there to solicit donations to some local boys’ scout troupe or sports team.
Political signs in Maine belie this sense of local interest. While there were certainly a fair number of Obama/Biden signs, and a lesser, though notable, number of McCain/Palin ones, the lion’s share of political messaging on street corners and in front yards went to local races. I marveled at the efforts by some to bombard you with signs on one candidate or issue; did the candidate with 5 signs really offer better solutions to our everyday issues than the one with 3? The campaigns must have thought so.
Maine promotes itself as a “vacationland” full of a range of outdoor recreation offerings. It combines a rural natural landscape with a rich New England history and culture. Towns work hard to draw tourists and maintain a sense of charm and “mom and pop” quality to their downtowns and main streets. All of this makes the excess in political signage all the more ironic.
But political races in Maine are about the individual and not the party; signs strive to achieve that name recognition that makes you choose Joe Smith versus Joe Jones; party affiliation alone is not enough. Independent-minded voting makes its way up the ranks from local to national elections here.
While in recent years, the state has voted Democratic for president, it did help elect both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the latter of whom maintains a large summer home in Maine. Both Maine senators are Republicans, albeit moderate ones. Northern Maine, or district 2, was seen by the McCain campaign as potential ground for 2 electoral votes this year (Maine is one of 2 states that can potentially split electoral votes by congressional district). Nonetheless, despite visits from both Sara and Todd Palen, Obama handily won the state’s entire electoral offering.
When I lived in New York, I voted at a local school in the neighborhood where I lived. This offered a sense of community in the face of such a large urban backdrop. In Maine, I vote on the grounds of our town’s annual agricultural fair, where livestock is traded and Ferris wheels spin. What’s interesting about this setting is that it brings the entire town together under one roof to vote. For our local politicians, the fair grounds are the uncontested last stand: and stand they did, all day long, shaking the hand of every town resident to cross the threshold.
I voted at around 5 p.m. on Election Day, on my way home from work. As I turned into the fair grounds, I marveled at the number of signs going up the hill to the main building where I was to make my voice heard. On one side were literally 10 signs in a row for one local candidate; on the other side as many for the opponent.
Did they really think I would choose one over the other because I saw their name more often or more prominently place? I suppose it’s the low-budget version of a barrage of TV ads on the day of an election. Regardless of its effect on my voting, the signs did add to the sense of magnitude in this year’s election, that is, until I parked the car.
Despite rumors of long lines and waits, I walked right in to my polling station. I gave my neighbor, stationed outside with other local candidates, a hug for luck in her house race, and cast my ballot, all in about a minute. It was somewhat anticlimactic on such an historic day, but I guess that’s what election days are all about: the end of the promises, slogans and signs and the beginning of the work to fulfill them. I just hope they clean up all those signs soon.
Cameron Myrick, a former New Yorker, lives in Maine.