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Village aiming for full turnout

Drive to get out vote in Montague

MONTAGUE CENTER -- A drive through this sleepy rural village can easily leave an outsider with at least one understandable impression: Not much happens here.

But just a glance at the community bulletin board in front of the Post Office surrounded by brilliant displays of fall foliage suggests a spark of civic duty and community mobilization rustling beneath Montague Center's bucolic New England beauty.

''It's a patriotic event," reads the flier taped to the board. ''Let's vote 100%."

It's the brainchild of Ingrid Bredenberg, who has taken up the cause of getting each of her 1,055 neighbors who are registered to vote to cast a ballot on Election Day.

''It's so frustrating to hear about voter apathy in America, when people in other countries have died for the right to vote," said Bredenberg, a 54-year-old strategic planning coordinator who moved to this Franklin County community nine years ago. ''I wanted to think of a way to get people to the polls and see what we could do in little Montague Center to make a statement."

What started as an idea grew into a movement when Bredenberg ran into Kathy Peura at Old Home Days, the village's annual end-of-summer fair.

''She was talking about how nice it would be to have some kind of campaign to get more people to vote," said Peura, a 60-year-old farmer, church secretary, and treasurer of Montague Center's lighting district who has lived in the village for 37 years. ''I thought, even if it doesn't happen, why shouldn't we try?"

Their message began to spread among neighbors through word of mouth, still the most effective mode of communication in close-knit communities like this one.

Then phone calls were being made, along with offers to drive anyone to the polls if they needed a ride. People started talking about the campaign at the Montague Bookmill and Lady Killigrew Cafe, two businesses that share space in a renovated 162-year-old grist mill.

Fliers went up around the village, at the Post Office and the public library, where voters run their ballots through a hand-cranked box. When the bell on top of the wooden box rings and you see the number counter roll, you know your vote was counted.

In a community where half the voters aren't affiliated with a political party, the get-out-the-vote campaign has been decidedly nonpartisan.

Suzanne Stenson O'Brien, the spokeswoman for National Voice, a coalition of community groups pushing to get more people to vote across the country, said the goal set in Montague Center is a rare one.

She knew of only one other community -- the West Side neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn. -- that has organized a 100 percent voter turnout campaign.

''That should be everyone's goal," she said. ''If decisions about our democracy are being made by only a small number of people, things aren't going to be fair and representative of what the majority wants."

Whether or not all voters in Montague Center do their civic duty on Tuesday, chances are there will be a very strong showing at the polls.

The town of Montague, which is made up of Montague Center and four other villages that have their own polling precincts, historically has a higher voter turnout than the state average.

In the last presidential election, 77.6 percent of the town's voters cast their ballots, overwhelmingly in favor of Democratic contender Al Gore.

In Montague Center, 436 voted for Gore; 207 voted for George Bush.

Statewide, only 68.2 percent of registered voters went to the polls.

Although he doesn't keep figures on how many voters turn out in each of the five villages, Montague Town Clerk John Zywna has a hunch that Montague Center is leading the pack.

''I doubt they've ever been beaten," he said. ''Montague Center always seems to draw out the most voters, percentage-wise."

The village's pride in its democracy stretches to 1774, when Montague was founded and its government was seated in Montague Center.

Sometime around 1900, as more people began moving to the village of Turners Falls, where paper, cotton and cutlery mills were opening along a newly created canal, the town offices followed along.

But the residents of Montague Center had a hard time letting go.

While the government offices made the 10-mile move to Turners Falls, the Town Hall sign stayed on in the old brick building in Montague Center that now houses the public library.

''I think people in Montague Center might feel like they've been shortchanged, and they really want to have a say in their government," Zywna said. ''If they're eligible to vote in that precinct, chances are they're standing in line."

Still, he has no expectations of a total turnout. People forget to vote. They have to leave town for an emergency. They arrive at the polling place five minutes after it closes.

Zywna's so sure of it that he's promised to buy Bredenberg dinner if even 950 of the village's 1,056 voters show up on Election Day.

Whether the campaign ultimately works, Zywna's pessimism -- or realism, as he sees it -- only seems to stoke the effort.

In a mock conversation with Zywna, she says, ''Tell Neil Armstrong he's not going to go to the moon."

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