At polling places across Missoula on Election Day 2004, poll staffers said unanimously that voter turnout was greater than they’d seen in past elections. Maybe that’s thanks to all the volunteers who registered voters at every Caras Park and downtown Missoula festival in the past year. Maybe it’s thanks to the myriad voter-education efforts of the Missoula League of Women Voters and Montana Women’s Vote. Or maybe, just maybe, the strong 2004 voter turnout was in response to a less political, more universal incentive: food.
At Paxson Elementary School, fourth graders held a bake sale at the entrance to the polling place in the school gym. Each fourth grader was asked to provide three dozen baked items to sell for 25 cents each; 36 baked goods from each of roughly 70 fourth graders equaled 2,520 tasty reasons to vote at Paxson. By 8:35 a.m., 259 ballots had already been cast, and poll worker Shirley Tiernan said people had been lined up outside the school before the polls opened at 7 a.m.
At Prescott School at 12:15 p.m., you could smell the coffee and muffins as soon as you walked through the front door. The Missoula International School had set up a table of treats in the hall outside Prescott’s gymnasium polling place; according to the Election Systems Software Model 100 ballot scanner, 352 voters had cast their ballots by midday, and about a dozen people were in line to vote. Chad Painter, one voter in line, was surprised the wait wasn’t taking longer; he’d talked to his mom in Pennsylvania that morning, and she’d told him she’d waited 45 minutes to vote.
Up the road at Rattlesnake School at 12:30 p.m., Great Harvest Bread had just dropped off a large donation of day-old baked goods for the poll workers, whose days began at 6 a.m. Voters didn’t seem to mind that the food wasn’t for them—1,348 ballots had already been cast, and one man voting was more concerned with the ballot scanner than his appetite: “You hope the machine knows what it’s doing,” he said, smiling. “There’s too much faith involved here.”
But Rattlesnake poll staffer Leslie Alexander said it seemed to her that Missoula voters knew what they were doing. She’d seen a lot of voters arriving with sample ballots from the Missoulian or with articles about the candidates’ positions. When an occasional ballot set off a beep in the scanner—indicating a mistake, such as too many bubbles blackened in the same category—Alexander was on hand with sheets of little white stickers to cover up the erroneous bubbles. She said voting had been going smoothly all day, and at lunchtime the line remained steady and swift.
Perhaps the slowest line of Election Day was at Bagels on Broadway, where anyone wearing an “I VOTED” sticker could receive one free bagel. Voters nibbled free samples of red, white and blue-swirled bagels while they waited in line at 12:50 p.m. The woman manning the register said it had been crazy since they opened. Maybe some of the 522 voters who had cast ballots by 9:05 a.m. at Roosevelt School—where there was no food in evidence—went straight from their vote to their bagel. Either that or they skipped the free breakfast and proved what we all know to be true: The vote is more important than the gut.