SMITH ISLAND, Md. — Born in 1947, Maxine Landon has spent her entire life on Smith Island, Maryland, a small island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.
Growing up, Maxine, like every Smith Islander, was encouraged to vote. And since 1965, Maxine made sure to vote in person on Smith Island in every election.
But this year, that won’t be possible. Smith Island’s last voting precinct was closed by election officials.
Residents can either cast a provisional ballot from the island, vote by mail or leave the archipelago, which can only be reached by boat, to vote in person. But many don’t trust provisional ballots and getting to the mainland to vote in person may be burdensome for an aging population.
That’s why Smith Islanders are fighting to get their precinct back.
“This should have never happened. We have the right to vote,” Maxine said. “We’re here on an isolated island. If (the county) wants the island’s residents to go over on the mainland or mail in a provisional ballot, we don’t want that. Residents want to vote, and they want to vote here.”
Smith Islanders have depended on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay to sustain their families for more than 300 years.
As the watermen’s way of life receded in recent years, tourism emerged as a source of income. The archipelago gained a reputation as a good place to drop off the grid and enjoy a slice of Smith Island cake — its eight to 10-layer thin layers are Maryland’s state dessert.
That isolation has influenced Smith Islanders’ language, a semi-Elizabethan/Shakespearean version of English, and their unique sense of resiliency and faith in their land.
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Remote living has helped preserve the history yet it hurts the islanders in other ways.
Smith Island’s voting precinct was one of hundreds of polling places in the state to be eliminated this year. The Maryland State Board of Elections chose to consolidate precincts into larger vote centers to make up for an election judge shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of Oct. 3, Maryland planned to open 321 vote centers on Election Day, roughly a fifth of the 1,604 polling locations that were open on Election Day in 2016, according to data from the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Smith Islanders feel like they’re “being silenced” because their rights are being taken away, said Everett Landon, a pastor on Smith Island.
Everett took to Facebook when he found out the voting precinct was closing. Smith Islanders followed by sending letters and calling the county Board of Elections to demand their precinct be reopened.
Altogether Everett delivered more than 100 letters from residents — about half of the island’s population — to the county Board of Elections.
“This story is important because it not only touches the people of Smith Island, it touches every American,” Everett said. “Every American has the right to vote. If they can take our right to vote away and use excuses for it, they can make an excuse for other communities and take their right away.”
Smith Islanders’ might have a claim that their voting rights are being infringed, said Michael Hanmer, a professor and research director at the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland.
The situation in Smith Island is similar to other legal cases questioning election access, such as Texas’ lawsuit surrounding election dropboxes, Hanmer said.
“In situations where there are major changes to voting options, we do often see lawsuits,” Hanmer said. “With the consolidation of precincts for this upcoming election, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw lawsuits in Maryland as well.”
If such a lawsuit were to arise, Smith Islanders would have to demonstrate that resources were in place on the island to open the precinct, Hanmer said. They’d also have to show a court that the closure caused harm, such as the overall time it would take to vote or the ferry costs associated with going to the mainland.
Delmarva Now reached out to the Somerset County Board of Elections but didn’t receive a response.
Maryland is committed to making sure every person has the opportunity to vote this year, according to an emailed statement from Donna Duncan, Maryland State Board of Elections assistant deputy administrator.
“Given that countywide vote centers are being used during this year’s election instead of the precinct-level polling places, it is important that every ballot is verified against the voter database to ensure the integrity of the election,” Duncan said. “The internet connection on Smith Island makes it difficult to verify and scan ballots on the island.”
A constitutional right
Smith Island traces its heritage back to the original settlement of the British colonies in the 1600s, according to Paula Johnson, a curator at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
John Smith, who settled Jamestown in 1607, first charted Smith Island that year, said Johnson, an anthropologist who’s studied Smith Island for 30 years. The island is named after Henry Smith, who along with other settlers began to permanently inhabit Smith Island as early as the 1660s.
Smith Island is comprised of three communities: Rhodes Point, Ewell and Tylerton. Cars brought over by boat are allowed on Smith Island, but golf carts are the most popular option to get around. Tylerton is separated from the other two villages, requiring a boat for access.
Smith Island doesn’t have a traditional town government, Everett said. The island has a group called Smith Island United, which advocates for the island, but for years, the pastor was considered the “unofficial mayor.”
Smith Island has been a relatively conservative stronghold in an overall blue state in recent years. President Donald Trump won 88% of the votes cast at the island’s Tylerton precinct in 2016. In 2012, presidential hopeful Sen. Mitt Romney won 89% of all votes in Tylerton.
Congressman Andy Harris, Md.-1, and Maryland State Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, both Republicans who represent Smith Island, called for Somerset County to change its decision.
The campaign to get their precinct back eventually got election officials attention. In September, it was announced Smith Islanders would have access to “walk-in voting.”
Many perceived the news as a victory, but Everett says that isn’t the case.
“We wanted to have a vote center here on the island, and what we got was walk-in voting,” Everett said. “The definition of the words matter.”
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Walk-in voting will allow Smith Islanders to fill out a provisional ballot, according to Everett. That ballot can be put in a secure dropbox on the island. On Election Day, it will be brought to a vote center on the mainland, where the votes will be verified and counted.
Residents don’t trust mail-in or provisional ballots, said Maxine, who’s been an election chief on Smith Island for 25 years. Residents have heard stories about ballots not getting to precincts in time or being thrown out. Others worry their vote won’t be counted if they accidentally fill out their ballot incorrectly.
Claims mail-in voting isn’t safe or there are problems with the system aren’t backed by evidence, according to a USA TODAY fact check. Several states have used mail-in voting for the last 20 years with few incidents of voter fraud or overall issues.
Fact check: What’s true and what’s false about voting by mail in 2020?
Ultimately, residents on the island aren’t happy with the options, but they don’t have much of a choice, Everett said. Their only option to vote in person is to leave the island.
‘They just forgot about us’
Getting to and from Smith Island can be a challenge, especially in November, said David Barone, a boat owner who ferries supplies to Smith Island. The island is 12 miles from the mainland but it can take as long as an hour to get there, depending on the weather.
Serious storms can blow through in November, bringing high winds and waves, Barone said. If the weather gets too bad, the journey isn’t safe, and the ferry service won’t run.
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Barone plans to ferry residents back and forth to the mainland on Election Day to help everyone vote, he said.
Other residents will have to catch the morning ferry to the mainland in order to vote, Barone said. If they miss that ferry, there’s another voyage at 3:30 p.m., but it doesn’t make a return trip until the following day.
Each trip on the ferry will also cost residents $20, said Laura Evans, who’s been election judge on Smith Island for 10 years. Residents will have to find transportation on the mainland to get to the vote center, cast their ballot, then wait for the 12:30 p.m. return trip to Smith Island.
It could take more than four hours for a Smith Islander to vote in person this year, well beyond guidelines from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration that say voting shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes.
Voter participation on Smith Island is high because it’s usually so convenient for residents to vote, Evans said. Residents can hop in their golf cart or walk to the precinct, cast their ballot and go about their day.
Poll workers on Smith Island weren’t worried about conducting an election this year, Evans said. There would have been plenty of space for social distancing, and Smith Island has been largely untou issue with COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
Evans also disputed the state’s concern about Smith Island’s internet connection, saying everything runs smoothly when conducting on election on the island. There’s never been an issue with scanning ballots, she said.
“In my opinion, I think they just forgot about us,” Evans said. “They forgot to include us because they can’t expect the whole community to come to the mainland to vote.”
An eroding economy, shoreline and culture
Smith Island is located in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay along the Virginia-Maryland border. During the Revolutionary War, the British used Smith Island as a military base, and both Maryland and Virginia claimed the island up until 1873.
Smith Islanders were once described as “an almost amphibious race” by Rev. James A. Massey in 1872. Smith Islanders have used the waters of the Chesapeake Bay for hundreds of years as a source of income and survival.
In 1884 alone, Maryland waterman hauled in 15 million bushels of oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, and Smith Island played a large part in the booming Chesapeake seafood industry.
The island’s proximity to Virginia and its involvement in the seafood industry in the 1880s even sparked a brief war between Maryland watermen and the state of Virginia known as the Oyster Wars.
Smith Island’s watermen culture thrived for many years but started decline approximately 40 years ago, Everett said. Since then the island has seen a downturn as people, businesses and services have left.
“It’s been a gradual change,” Everett said. “Just like the shoreline erodes a little bit each year, the population dwindles a little bit each year, and there’ll be some businesses that’ll close down.”
The voting precinct was the latest service to leave, and many residents fear it won’t return. Smith Island used to have two precincts in Ewell and Tylerton. The Tylerton precinct was closed in 2018 and hasn’t returned.
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Growing up, the seafood industry was a major part of Smith Island life, said Eddie Somers, a part-time resident who grew up on Smith Island.
Somer’s father was a waterman and so were most of his friends’ fathers growing up. By the time Somers was 11, he went out on the water to help his father.
“The men would come to the store in the evening after they’d have supper, which was usually right around 5 p.m. for most people,” Somers said. “They would walk to the store, and maybe pick up a couple of things, but they would sit and talk, mostly about crabbing or oystering. I really did enjoy that. I would just sit there and listen.”
In the late 1980s, Maryland opened Eastern Correctional Institution, a state prison in Westover. The prison is about 25 miles from Crisfield, Maryland, which serves as a hub between Smith Island and the mainland.
“When the prison opened up in the late 1980s that drew a lot of people away,” Somers said. “Then there was sort of a big die-off of older people.”
Beyond the opening of the prison, the seafood industry was facing more regulation and younger generations of Smith Islanders weren’t as interested in becoming watermen, Somers said.
The prison pulled a lot of waterman off the waters, said Mark Kitching, a Smith Island resident and lifelong watermen. The prison offered a stable paycheck and good benefits.
Once the watermen and others started moving away, businesses and services followed, Kitching said. As the years ticked by, some Smith Islanders began to wonder if the island’s culture was dying.
“The old people always had a saying, ‘It was good to see your light on last night,’ ” Kitching said. “I can see what that means now in the sense that you have a neighbor. Neighbors here are neighbors for 50-60 years. When they leave, it has an impact. It’s just the sense that something else is gone and it probably won’t be coming back.”
‘Smith Island is still very much alive’
Smith Islanders also must deal with an island that’s slowly eroding into the Chesapeake Bay.
The government wanted to buyout parts of Smith Island to stop redevelopment after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Somers said. The government’s plan would have been the final “nail in the coffin” of Smith Island so the island banded together.
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Residents formed Smith Island United, which advocates for the preservation of Smith Island, and officials eventually backed off their plan.
In the years since Smith Island United has successfully lobbied the government to invest $31 million in engineering projects to address the land erosion, said Somers, who’s the president of Smith Island United.
Despite the economic downturn and land erosion, Smith Islanders aren’t giving up on the island.
Smith Island might appear to be dying off slowly, but the island is still very much alive, said Dwight Marshall, a part-time resident who grew up on the island.
Smith Islanders have begun to open bed-and-breakfasts and other businesses to cater to tourists.
Marshall said he has rented his house out to tourists on Airbnb. His house has been booked up completely from June 1 through November since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“We united when they wanted to kick us off once before. We ain’t going nowhere,” Marshall said. “That’s the way we feel. We believe that when the Lord tells us it’s time to go we’ll go. There’s a strong faith in the island, and we all look at it that way.”
Smith Island has reinvented itself before, Johnson said. When colonists first settled the island, they were able to raise cattle, build orchards and grow crops.
Residents had to reinvent the island through the years due to land erosion and other circumstances to survive, Johnson said. Many chose to become watermen, now conditions again are forcing Smith Island to change.
“These are really resilient people,” Johnson said. “They’re incredibly creative people. They see something that needs to be done and they’ll figure out how to do it.”
In addition to tourism, people are starting to move back to Smith Island, Everett said. A family moved into the house next to Everett’s and others have relocated to Smith Island in the last year.
“I truly believe that Smith Island is not going to just waste away and erode like many other islands here in the Chesapeake Bay,” Everett said. “I really believe we can make a difference and bring the island back, but just in a different way.”
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Everett isn’t sure if the voting precinct will ever return, he said. He’s working to get a commitment to bring the precinct back in future elections, but the county Board of Elections hasn’t committed, he said.
Voting matters in a democracy, Everett said. In the case of Smith Island, even though it’s a small, remote community, islanders know their votes have the power to create change.
“Our founding fathers put into effect this election system, and how we vote for those that represent us,” Everett said. “If we lose sight of the importance of voting, then our country is going to be in worse shape than it is right now.”
Follow Delmarva Now reporter Matthew Prensky on Twitter: @matthewprensky.
This article originally appeared on Salisbury Daily Times: 2020 election: Maryland’s Smith Island fights to get back only voting precinct