She has our vote

by Charmaine Daniels

Melissa Packarf '90

Ironically, Melissa Packard ’90, the head of Maine’s Bureau of Elections, has to vote with an absentee ballot because on Election Day she works from 7 a.m. to midnight.

For Melissa Packard '90, Christmas this year comes in November. Maine's head of elections says it comes when all the ballots are counted, from tiny Glenwood Plantation (population, 2, until recently, when someone else moved in) to the 50,000 votes from Portland, the state's largest city. Two days after votes are cast, the director of the Bureau of Elections, knowing another election season has come and gone smoothly, rejoices.

Thanks to the 2000 presidential election, most of us know just how significantly voting mechanics can impact a race. After what Packard terms the "Florida fiasco," when the race was decided by a few hundred votes - but many more than that were disputed because of possible ballot errors - Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. To correct problems such as voters being told they were ineligible because their last name was similar to that of a convicted felon, states are now required to have computerized central registration lists.

Though Florida experienced the meltdown eight years ago, Packard says it could have happened in many other states where ballot styles or voter eligibility rules change from county to county.

"There's a lot more to elections than people realize," she says. "Now everyone keeps records in the same way," she adds.

Packard states that one of the strengths of Maine's system is that voters across the state use just one kind of ballot with the same set of instructions. In Florida, each county has a director of elections who determines the ballot layout (think of the infamous hanging chads of the butterfly ballot in 2000 where voters were unsure of what hole to punch). Maine hasn't used the punch card system since the '80s, she notes.

Sixty percent of voters in Maine use paper ballots with an optical scan tally, and the rest still use hand-counted paper ballots. Though Maine issues only paper ballots, Packard says that more urban states and cities often use direct recording equipment (called a DRE or touch screen). However, she says some voters suspect DREs can be hacked into.

Packard oversees the production of ballots for every town (1,500 different sets of candidates), making sure the ballots are worded accurately, spelled and printed correctly, and then shipped properly. She also advises the 500 town clerks throughout the state on voting questions and takes calls from voters concerned that petitioners at the polling place are trying to influence votes. She tabulates winners based on statewide results and, if there's a voting dispute because of a close race, her office does the recount by hand. She also coordinates the forms for when officials get sworn in.

A double major in history and English at Saint Joseph's, Packard's first job brought her back to her hometown of Unity, Maine as the town clerk. Among the many duties there, she was in charge of municipal elections. She then spent five years in the Kennebec Journal sports department as a news assistant, but in 1998 started a job as an elections assistant for the state. From there she moved to assistant director and became director in 2004.

One of the pleasures of her job? Dealing with voters and helping them vote for the first time. The new federal voting law states polling places have to accommodate handicapped voters with phone/fax systems for blind people or touch screens for people who can't physically register their vote otherwise.

"I remember a blind man from the Disability Rights Center helped us train the town clerks," she recalls. "He told us that he was so excited to cast his own private ballot and not rely on his wife."

Will she herself ever run for office? Though once a devoted fan of TV political drama "The West Wing," she answers emphatically, "No."

Pinned to her cubicle wall in the office building adjacent to the State Capitol, Packard has a photo of what her Christmas-in-November looks like: the computerized vote tallies lined up in baskets by district, with stuffed elephants or donkeys decoratively placed on the tables.

Another election well done.

Are voters rational?

I remember reading, after the 2004 Presidential election, an article surveying the opinions of New Yorkers and San Franciscans, all of whom had voted for John Kerry. They each blamed the election's outcome on the Bush supporters' ignorance and bias. Of course, many of those same Bush supporters were pleased that the country had not succumbed to all those foolish, benighted Kerry voters.

This phenomenon is nothing new; in any election, each faction doubts the rationality of the other side. However, some scholars think that voting itself is irrational. Here's why: in 2004, over 120 million citizens cast votes for President. Each voter had (hopefully!) only one vote. Thus, the effect of each voter on the outcome was about 0.00000083%, which means that voting for President is sort of like pouring a glass of water over the side of a boat in order to increase the depth of the ocean. Why take time off from work for that?

We're told that "every vote counts" and that we can "make a difference." But the math shows that we really can't - at least as individuals. My decision to stay home on Election Day won't affect the outcome to any measurable degree, and neither will yours.

Of course, if everyone stays home, then the democratic process will all be for naught. So does our political system depend on the citizenry acting irrationally?

Yes - if the only reason for voting is to influence the election's outcome. But there are other reasons for voting, too. Some people vote as a means of expressing their values. Others see it as a civic duty. Still others vote as a means of signaling their solidarity with their government. And some want to feel like they are part of something larger than themselves, and voting gives them a way to participate in a movement they identify with (this is similar to why people buy baseball caps with their favorite team's logo on the front).

So the good news is that, when you vote November, you may very well be acting rationally! But as for all those people pulling for the candidate you oppose...well, there's no accounting for taste.

- Dr. Chris Callaway,
Assistant professor of philosophy 

Lobbying for paper ballots

Voting with an absentee ballot is becoming more and more common. In Maine about 40 percent of people vote that way. In more urban areas where lines run longer, it's especially popular, and the State of Oregon actually requires absentee ballots for everyone.

In the meantime, showing up at the polling place is still a way to catch up with your neighbor and take comfort in seeing the devoted election clerks who volunteer year after year. I'm always glad to see the same face behind that thick ledger filled with voters whose last name begins with A through F.

I take comfort in entering the little booth with the red, white and blue striped curtain. And, I like that there's a special pencil on a string that I can use to make my mark.

Touch screens? Punch cards? No thanks.

- Charmaine Daniels