WVN #354: Town could make history with electronic voting
- Dear Wayland Voter,
Wayland could become the first municipality to use electronic voting at a New England town meeting.
Also in this newsletter: Two other Town Meeting procedure articles failed.
A future newsletter will round up other decisions at the Town Meeting that ended on May 19.
A FIRST FOR WAYLAND
An enthusiastic crowd at Wayland Town Meeting on May 19 accepted the offer of a free trial of an electronic voting system a year from now. As debate ended many voters were waiting to speak in favor of the measure, Article 22.
The lead petitioner, former Selectman Alan Reiss, had been talking up the idea for months. Officials were generally supportive of the idea but didn't endorse it, primarily because of the cost. Reiss removed that objection Wednesday night when he announced that Option Technologies Interactive would provide a free trial at the spring 2011 Town Meeting. There is no commitment beyond that.
Keypad decision-making is in wide use in business and academia (in Wayland High School classes, for example) but hasn't been used yet for municipal voting. The Florida-based company is obviously eager to sell the system in New England, where hundreds of communities use the centuries-old town meeting system. Other companies also offer the technology.
The Finance Committee had estimated the cost over five years at about $180,000, Reiss at $150,000. He said the system would save money by shortening meetings, and costs might be shared with other towns.
Westwood has shown interest in the system. And in Sharon residents who want to preserve open town meeting were in touch with Reiss about electronic voting. Sharon voters on May 18 rejected a proposal for a combination of open and representative town meeting.
Wayland's vote on the previous article provided an example of the pitfalls in the present system. After the initial shout-out voice vote, Moderator Peter Gossels said the result sounded like passage of Article 21. A cry went up from the audience, which had heard the opposite. (WayCAM microphones also picked up more noise for the No vote than for Yes.) A count of standing voters showed 90 for Article 21, 167 against.
That problem results from acoustics in the high school field house. But electronic voting supporters cited other structural flaws: Counts of standing voters are inherently subject to inaccuracy. Voting by unregistered persons is possible. Most of all, much time is consumed. Counting several hundred voters can take a half hour.
With electronic voting, each voter would be registered and issued a keypad upon arriving, and registration might be automated. For each vote 60 seconds would be allowed, and the last keystroke within that period would be counted. Seconds later, voters would know the exact count and the percentages.
Voters opposing the change argued that the system could be hacked; Reiss explained system security features. When health concerns were raised, Reiss explained that the keypads have a quarter of a cellphone's power and register votes in a fraction of a second.
A member of the Housing Authority opposed the article, saying that those who care enough to vote No should stand up for their position. Reiss has said that his talks with voters found great support for voter privacy and equal concern about voter intimidation by political activists. (Westwood's town administrator reported public interest in privacy, offering residents a chance to vote their conscience.)
One opponent said electronic voting wouldn't address the problem of voter participation. Supporters predicted an increase in Town Meeting attendance.
Could you sit at home watching on TV and vote there? a voter asked. Massachusetts law requires voters to be at the meeting, but Reiss said this first initiative could be a baby step to greater things.
HYBRID BALLOT SYSTEM
Voters devoted an hour to Article 21, which proposed sending major Town Meeting decisions to the polls four to six weeks later. Though nearly two thirds of the voters rejected it, the article raised serious questions about participation.
Wayland residents aren't apathetic, lead petitioner Mark Greenlaw said: 89 percent of those eligible voted in November 2008, a 40 percent turnout is common and the previous week's town election drew 33 percent. Yet Town Meeting attendance on May 17 was 249 -- 2.89 percent of registered voters.
"We have a de facto representative Town Meeting," Greenlaw said. (In a representative system, as opposed to open town meeting, voters elect citizens to represent them.) The disenfranchised, he said, include the elderly, young families, people who work nights or have to be away on business.
Furthermore, he said, many voters want privacy (the same observation that Reiss reported).
Some supporters represented the groups that Greenlaw identified. One senior said he no longer had the stamina for Town Meeting. A lawyer who has small children and is married to a doctor who works nights talked about the sacrifices necessary to attend Town Meeting.
Opponents pointed out that this particular hybrid system exists nowhere else and would have to be approved by special action of the state legislature. In New Hampshire and Vermont, similar systems have caused town meeting attendance to plummet, they said.
Others, including selectmen Chairman Joe Nolan, expressed serious reservations about how the Board of Selectmen would decide which articles go to the polls.
Calling the proposed change a "vast mistake," one voter said that representative town meeting should be considered before trying the hybrid.
Another objection was that the existing system offers the chance to make decisions based on what happened previously: for example, if two articles compete for funds, the result of the first might affect a decision on the second.
There was strong support for the tradition of Town Meeting voters acting as legislators, filling a role that can't easily be duplicated in other ways. A voter who brings her toddler to Town Meeting recommended holding the first session on a weekend day. This was recommended by a previous study committee, tried once with some apparent success, then abandoned.
TOWN MEETING WEBSITE
Like Articles 21 and 22, Article 23 changed by the time it reached the floor. Lead petitioner Ira Sager, rather than continuing to seek a town website devoted to Town meeting information and debate, simply proposed that the town's website http://www.wayland.ma.us provide a link to www.waylanddebates.org.
After inefficiency, Sager said, the biggest problem with Town Meeting is the quality of debate. Because of time limits (in fact shortened from an hour to 45 minutes on May 19 because of a pressing schedule) and motions to cut off debate, many arguments go unheard. And, he said, much debate consists of fact-checking.
Sager proposed the volunteer-managed website as an answer, and said that the volunteers would try to enforce decency. The cost to taxpayers: nothing.
Town officials and others were concerned about setting a precedent and perhaps being liable even if the town merely provided a link. When one voter noted that the town site links to churches and volunteer organizations, another said that a Town Meeting debate site is different.
The article failed on a voice vote. But the site is still there, and residents can decide for themselves whether to use it as another source of information to help them decide how to vote.
-- WVN Staff
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor