Look out your window. If you see trees, or farm fields, and not a whole lot of people, you probably live in a township. And if you do, there was a meeting last night, not far from your house, where a few of your neighbors decided who should run the town, and if the road you take to work should get new gravel, and how much you'll be paying in township property taxes for the entire year.
Minnesota has nearly 1,800 townships. And by law, every one of them has to hold a public meeting on the second Tuesday of March, every year. It's called Township Day, and it happened Tuesday night.
Maybe you were there. Statistically, though, you probably weren't. Township Day meetings aren't usually well-attended.
Some of those townships — like Taylor Township, just north of Bemidji — hold elections on Township Day, too.
The Taylor Town Hall is a small tin building with no listed street address and a gravel parking lot. Dianne Sizer is a volunteer election judge.
Two people were running for office in Taylor Township Tuesday night, both uncontested: One for supervisor, and then the clerk, Rachael Merrill, up for another term. The township's polls were open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. But it was a quiet three hours in the township hall.
"We're lucky if we get 13 people voting," Sizer said. She and her two fellow election judges hunker down for the duration. "We bring our knitting, and we have a lot of visiting, a lot of coffee drinking."
In the grand scheme, 13 isn't actually that bad. There are only about 130 people in Taylor Township, and a few of them are children.
Eckles Township, one of the largest townships in Beltrami County, has almost 2,000 residents, and only about 40 people tend to show up at their Township Day meeting.
Then there's Hamre Township, a bit farther to the north. Only 15 people live in that township's 36-mile square.
The real heart of Township Day comes after the election — at the evening meeting. That's where locals get to root around in the budget and suggest changes.
This, according to Mel Milender, Eckles Township supervisor, is the really special thing about a township: "We are the only level of government where the voters directly determine the amount of taxes they will pay the following year."
Milender is also on the board of the Minnesota Association of Townships. He's quiet, but deeply passionate about local government.
"When you go to your annual meeting, not only can you say, 'That's too much, I'm not going to support that,'" he says, "you can say, 'I want you to spend that money on some of these things.' "
Realistically, it's never much money. Depending on the township — and home values — that spending comes down to about a few hundred dollars per household, tops. But Milender says it's about the principle of the thing. It's democracy in action.
The problem, he says, is that young people aren't often all that compelled by a few hundred dollars and the principles of local government to get involved in Township Day and the running of the government. He's been working on recruitment for years, knocking on the doors of young families to harangue them about township meetings.
And that's because the holy grail, he says, is to get young people interested in Township Day, get them in the door, get them involved.
Back at the Taylor Town Hall, Merrill, the incumbent clerk, sets up the ballots, which she brought, and casts one for herself. She first ran for office because she had a friend on the township board — and they needed a clerk. "I was about 21, and they did not have a clerk at Taylor," she said. "So they asked me if I would run, and I ran, and was elected, and they sort of helped me into it."
That was 16 years ago, and Merrill's still part of Milender's township holy grail.
"There was nothing really attractive [about the role] at first. But the more you get into it, the more you see the need," she said.
And now, she says, she's in for good. Or, at least for the next two years. That's how long the terms are.
She won unanimously Tuesday night — by all 11 votes cast.