Rigging the Vote in Collingswood

Who's to say that this isn't the best town in America?

I’ve always had a bit of a problem when, instead of being picked by some God-like judge, or impartial committee, winners of “best-of” lists or other “we’re #1”-type contests are determined by how many people the pizza shop or senior-class president or podiatrist can get to vote for them.

My town of Collingswood is trying to climb its way to the top of Reader’s Digest’s online contest “We Hear You America,” and threw a “Get Out the Vote Party” last night. Volunteers were asked to come with laptops in order to show people how to vote in the poll; Casona provided the space and free food.

As I made my way upstairs in the Cuban restaurant at about 5:15, the place seemed too quiet. Upstairs in the gorgeous private rooms a buffet table was arranged with trays of empanandas, Cuban sandwiches, yucca fries, and more, but where were all the voters?

I found one of the three small dining rooms full—with Collingswood employees and active members of Collingswood organizations. Each one had a laptop or iPad, and they were quickly clicking and chatting away. After all, big cash prizes are at stake: The winning city will receive $50,000, but even 10 also-rans will receive $5,000.

Mayor Maley was there, already plugged in and voting. When I asked him if he felt a little guilty for stuffing the ballot box, he quipped, “Isn’t that how most elections are run?”

The voting process is so easy that everyone was also brainstorming, making wry jokes about the recent Michael Landon plaque debacle, and enjoying the guacamole. No one seemed concerned that no one from the true “public” was there. I’m ridiculously, even embarrassingly optimistic, but this scene was making me sad.

I got myself some of the food, and went into one of the other empty rooms to write down some notes, and figure out how I was going to write about this event. A few minutes later, a couple of townies came in and introduced themselves as they logged into Casona’s wi-fi and started voting. A few minutes later a mother and young daughter came and did the same.

We heard a cheer come from the other room and found out that the voting had crossed the 200,000 mark. We each told our own “whisper-down-the-lane” version of the Michael Landon plaque story. I felt comfortable enough to tell these people that I had a crush on Michael Landon when I was little, and even that it was probably the hair that did it for me.

Everyone at my table was the same Collingswood breed as me—not from here, but lived here long enough to love it. We had to speak more loudly as more people came. And more. Cass Duffey, director of community development, told me she had asked the folks at Reader’s Digest how the top-three towns were staying at the top, and the reps told her that the other towns won’t reveal their secrets.

I mentioned this to Christina McLean, owner of Great Heart Fiber Art, and she promptly looked up the #1 town, Lake City, Iowa (their motto is “everything but a lake”) and read the comments their voters were putting up. Christina quickly discovered a unified purpose: This town with a population of 1,800 was in the lead because they wanted a community swimming pool.

How would Collingswood’s 14,326 residents want to spend the money? I went back in the room with the borough people and told them what the newly formed research team had discovered.

Earlier, people were kicking around how to get the Collingswood schools involved. Now both ideas converged and people were wondering what Collingswood kids would get engaged in or whether the Mayor should make some kind of public statement that all comments would get consideration—a vote within the vote.

We realized that we had racked up more than 2,000 votes in 10 minutes. Right around then it dawned on me that while Lake City doesn’t have a lake, or even a pool, Collingswood has a pool, a lake, a river and a pond. I didn’t care. I wanted Collingswood to win.

I still don’t like the idea of stuffing ballot boxes, but with a little help from this crowd, I saw why Reader’s Digest wasn’t limiting votes via email or even by IP addresses to make things more fair to towns with small populations. I started to think that even if the Courier-Post’s ballot-driven selection of the “best cheesesteak in South Jersey” doesn’t really yield the best cheesesteak in South Jersey, the fact that the winning cheesesteak purveyors were able to stir up the most passion among “their” voters has to mean something. I have to admit, I’d like to be able to say that Collingswood is the #1 or even #12 best town to live, even if I know that the residents decided this themselves—in fact, maybe especially if the residents decided this themselves.