Officials divided as Whitman considers electronic voting
WHITMAN — Town Administrator Frank Lynam will be hosting a meeting within the first two weeks of December “to conduct a preliminary discussion regarding the possibility and practicality of utilizing electronic voting at town meetings.”
But the device, which resembles a miniature TV remote, could be a tough sell in some quarters.
Police Chief Scott Benton and Fire Chief Timothy Grenno have voiced objections to it, and DPW Parks and Highways Superintendent Bruce Martin has suggested the money to purchase the devices could probably be better spent elsewhere.
The devices, for which a quote has been received from Turning Technologies of Youngstown, Ohio, are expected to cost $7,050 for 150. Their product is heavily used in colleges and by the military. Whitman would look to obtain 300, should they be approved, with renting or borrowing more if more are ever needed.
“I’m going to deal with whatever comes out of it, but I think if they want to zero in on an individual … and they want to zing them, it’s a good way to sit there and hide behind a button,” Benton said.
“There’s more than just us that aren’t happy with it,” Grenno said, suggesting it could change the democratic process of town government. “We have a town meeting that works.”
Lynam sees electronic voting as a way to avoid intimidation at town meeting.
“The biggest challenge is making sure that we have a sufficient number of devices,” he said. “The benefits to a push-button device? It takes the intimidation factor out of voting. People can vote their conscience or their wishes without fear of reprisal, intimidation or scorn from their fellow voters.”
Benton took issue with that.
“We, by the nature of our job, [tick] people off,” Benton said. “So is it to be portrayed that the Police Department has always been funded because I intimidate people?”
Lynam had originally posted the meeting for Nov. 24, but Town Moderator Michael Seele was unable to attend on that date. The session, which will also include Town Clerk Dawn Varley, Technology Director Josh MacNeil, Finance Committee Chairman William Capocci and selectmen, has yet to be reposted.
Varley and Lynam said electronic voting would be more accurate and could remove the intimidation factor from votes on controversial warrant articles.
“Nobody has to know how you’re voting,” she said. “We would do it on all articles, not just the sensitive articles. … It’ll be fair. I think it will be much faster.”
She recalled a past town meeting at which she cast a vote for a school budget. Her mother, watching at home gave her what-for after seeing her vote on TV.
Benton, for one, sees real intimidation problems within electronic voting. He argues the process could allow people to “bully silently.”
“We’ve seen how powerful social media is,” Benton said. “I just think our form of government works.”
“There’s a process in place to have a secret ballot,” Grenno said. “There’s not a problem, it’s not broken and I don’t believe that the town is in the fiscal situation to wastefully spend money on electronic voting machines when there are needs for public safety, there are needs for Town Hall, the DPW and there are needs for tax relief in town.”
Varley, however, sees electronic voting as the way things are headed.
“We’re trying to get interest from the voters,” Varley said. “We scrimp and scrape every town meeting to get 150 people here.”
It will also make her job easier, as all votes will be recorded and saved in a file. The warrant could be produced in PowerPoint for on-screen display during town meetings to help voters follow along.
“You can do cumulative [tallies] so they can watch the votes come in, but that’s not what we’ll do,” she said. Whitman would use a time limit for casting votes before the results are displayed.
While devices carry numbers for inventory control, Varley said no one will know which device an individual voter has, but misuse may have to be controlled by peer pressure.
“Other towns have done it and they don’t find any of this stuff to be a problem,” she said, noting Avon and Belmont use them. Belmont tested theirs in a mock town meeting, trying to alter or change votes and were unable to do so.
Lynam said he was inspired to look into electronic voting after seeing an article two years ago in The Advocate, a municipal paper, indicating some towns were considering it and has been informally discussing it with Varley and Capocci on whether it was viable and how to pay for it.
Hanson is also interested in the devices, perhaps sharing with another community, according to Varley.