Vineyard Voters Head to Polls Tuesday to Cast Ballots in Presidential Election

By CHRIS BURRELL

Sturdy brown envelopes, some of them mailed from as far away as the Netherlands, Italy and Russia, are stacked up tall on the desk of Wanda Williams, the town clerk in Edgartown.

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Ask Ms. Williams or any of the Island's other five town clerks how things are going the week before Election Day, and you'll hear a deep sigh. They are swamped, not only with a surge of those brown envelopes containing absentee ballots but also with tallying up new voters.

Islandwide, voter registration rolls now total 12,539, up nearly six per cent from just five months ago. In other words, town clerks are bracing themselves for a heavy turnout Tuesday.

Polls on the Island open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and won't close until 8 p.m. Voters will cast ballots to help decide eight separate political contests, from Dukes County commissioner right on up to the country's President, a race that's quickly fueling as much suspense as a Red Sox-Yankees playoff game.

"This is probably the most intense election I've ever been through, and I've been here 22 years," said Tisbury town clerk Marion Mudge.

"It would be cooler if people were in better moods about it. They're angry," she added.

"There's a tremendous energy out there. The country is split right down the middle," said Judy Crawford, the voter services chairman of the Vineyard chapter of the League of Women Voters. "I don't think we're going to find out who the President's going to be the evening of the voting."

That energy can be measured in the number of absentee ballots that town clerks on the Vineyard have sent out and are now busy processing.

Tisbury has already counted off 308. "It's the most I've ever had," said Ms. Mudge. "We just broke 200 in 2000."

The story is much the same in other Island towns.

Chilmark town clerk Margaret Orlando mailed 145 absentee ballots four years ago. Last count on Wednesday, she had topped 160 ballots sent from afar plus another 16 from what's called specially qualified voters, Americans living overseas who choose to vote here.

Ballots are streaming into the town hall at Beetlebung Corner from London, Spain, France and Cambodia, the Chilmark town clerk said.

Stanley Schonbrun, a 75-year-old from West Tisbury, is one of those absentee voters, and it's not because he's vacationing in Cancun. Come Election Day, the retired computer software engineer will be back in New Hampshire campaigning for the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry.

"New Hampshire is a terribly important state because Bush took it in 2000 by only a few votes," he said. "New Hampshire is relatively easy to get to, a lot easier than Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida."

By outward appearances on Martha's Vineyard, such political activism appears to be more of a Democratic endeavor.

"Republicans, they're keeping a low profile," observed Mr. Schonbrun.

One reason could be that party enrollment figures on the Island tilt heavily toward Democrats. The ratio is more than double: 4,038 registered Democrats compared to 1,659 Republicans. The remaining voters are mostly unenrolled with a sprinkling of Green Party members and Libertarians in the mix.

Locally, the hotly contested races for seats in the Massachusetts Legislature are pitting Republican challengers against Democratic incumbents.

West Tisbury native and high school Spanish teacher James Powell is running on the Republican ticket in a bid to unseat the eight-term Democrat - state Rep. Eric T. Turkington from Falmouth.

The three-way race for the state Senate seat for the Cape and Islands is already setting a record as the most expensive in the commonwealth, the Cape Cod Times reported Wednesday. Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary, a Democrat from Barnstable, is fighting off a dual challenge in his try for a third term. Combined spending has reached nearly $400,000.

Challengers for the senate seat are Dr. Gail Lese, a Republican from Yarmouth, and Luiz (Lou) Gonzaga, an Independent from Barnstable.

U.S. Cong. William Delahunt is facing a challenge from a Plymouth Republican named Michael Jones.

There's a four-way race for three seats on the Dukes County Commission as George Balco, a Tisbury finance committee member, tries to edge out one of the incumbents up for reelection. The incumbents are John Alley, Leonard Jason Jr. and Roger Wey.

Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack is running uncontested for a second six-year term. Eight candidates for the Martha's Vineyard Commission are also running in what is essentially an uncontested race since voters can mark ballots for up to nine candidates.

Speaking of ballots, Vineyard voters still use the paper kind, either marking lines or filling in circles next to the candidates of their choice.

"So many states do not have a paper backup. People rushed into the newer technology after Florida," said Ms. Crawford. "They don't have a way to trace a vote. I feel good about what we're doing here on the Island."