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Reflections on Voting in Montana’s Big Sky Country

May 30, 2008 at 6:50 PM EST
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Guest essayist Scott McMillion of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and the Montana Quarterly reflects on voting in Montana.
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RAY SUAREZ: As Montana prepares to vote in its primary next Tuesday, guest essayist Scott McMillion of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and the Montana Quarterly finds a different kind of pleasure in going to the polls.

SCOTT MCMILLION, Bozeman Daily Chronicle: I like to vote. It’s not the exercise of democracy so much; it’s the people I see at the polls. They remind me who I am.

Every time I vote, I greet people who have known me all my life, mostly older ladies with children who live far away. They like to work the election tables where they hand me ballots and smile, mostly, through a long day in a steel building at the fairgrounds, the place I helped build on a summer job 30 years ago.

POLL WORKER: Do you remember David Lennier?

SCOTT MCMILLION: Lennier? Uh-huh.

Marion Eto wiped my tears after I took a snowball in the eye when I was 6 years old. Jean Connolly’s husband took our scout troop camping.

And here in my home town of Livingston, Montana, the links to my boyhood are increasingly rare. Ringed by mountains and skirted by the Yellowstone River, Livingston has a unique beauty, but it shares the problems common in the West’s pretty places.

Ranchers have grown scarce. Land speculators haven’t. And there are lots of unfamiliar faces.

When friends visit from out of town, they often marvel at how many people I wave to or greet. “Do you know everybody?” they ask. No, I usually think. It seems like I don’t know anybody at all anymore.

I grew up in what was a close-knit, scrappy, union-dominated town, where 1,500 people once drew steady railroad pay. Since then, our town has been discovered by urban refugees, writers and artists, even a few celebrities.

A dozen art galleries line the streets. And we’ve got Internet cafes, some really good restaurants, and, of course, no shortage of lattes. This is definitely part of the new West.

As a reporter, I cover disputes over water and grizzly bears and gated subdivisions. And I try to make sense of it when people I respect start calling each other names because they disagree over wolves or zoning.

I hate to see the taxes rise, but I want the best schools possible, so I’m willing to pay. A bigger house probably isn’t realistic, mostly because so many moneyed newcomers have arrived, sending property values to the heavens.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like the new West a lot. I treasure good coffee in the bookstores, and I enjoy the restaurants when I’m feeling flush. Plus, most of the people closest to me come from somewhere else: Delaware, England, California, even my wife, my very best friend, grew up in New York.

They all came here looking for more than a job, and they found it, which makes them good company, which brings me back to the ladies at election day. They, too, see fewer familiar faces at every election, but I’ve spotted them in the coffee shops and the bookstores, places that appeal to literate, friendly women, people who kept an eye on me and so many other kids, because that was part of the job in a small place where almost everybody knew almost everybody.

They’ve watched me succeed and they’ve watched me screw up, but they never mention anything but the successes. I appreciate that.

In this new West, these women provide a link to my roots and an older West. They make voting into something more than just a civic duty. When they’re gone, this building will be a smaller place. I’ll still vote, but I won’t enjoy it as much.

I’m Scott McMillion.