Whitman panel to study voting devices
WHITMAN — A committee is being formed by Town Moderator Michael Seele to study the pros and cons of electronic voting at Town Meeting — an issue affecting bylaws that will ultimately be put before Town Meeting to accept or reject.
Seele and Town Clerk Dawn Varley are the first two members of the study committee, being asked to update selectmen on its progress in March. Members from both sides of the issue will be placed on that panel.
The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Dec. 15 expressed divided opinions on the idea — with Brian Bezanson and Dan Salvucci supporting electronic voting, Scott Lambiase voicing objections and both Lisa Green and Chairman Carl Kowalski saying they need more information before forming an opinion.
“I’m not really comfortable being on the fence on anything,” Kowalski said. “My first reaction was we don’t need that.”
But, he added that he understands how a shy person can feel cowed by the number of people around them that may be voting differently.
“I’m interested in hearing some more about the motivation for this,” he said.
Varley opened the discussion with a report on how electronic voting works and opinions of officials in towns now using it.
The small, remote control-type devises with numeric keypad on which a yes or no vote would be cast by punching number one or two. They can be leased or purchased with the town able to borrow extra from other towns if a huge Town Meeting turnout is seen.
“I’ve pretty much given you all the information that I found out, and that’s what my job was,” Varley said.
She did report that voice votes are generally inaccurate, standing counts are time-consuming and public votes can result in the potential for intimidation.
“I have a problem with that [last point] because we shouldn’t feel intimidated or fear retribution when we’re in our own town — in our own community — and we all have a common interest,” Kowalski said. “They’re our friends and neighbors.”
Kowalski said, even though there have been contentious town meetings in the past, the current practice of voice and standing votes has worked for a number of years.
“I don’t remember the really weird times,” he said.
Another reason for considering electronic voting is the continuing effort to increase voter turnout.
“Every Town Meeting, I’m fighting to get 150 people,” Varley said. “I think this might be it.” Lawn signs and reminders on census forms are also being considered.
“The participation is going to be [based on] what you have for warrant articles,” Lambiase said. “I think that the biggest thing is that a great majority of the populace has no idea what we do at Town Meeting.”
Bezanson said he, too, likes to think intimidation is not a big factor in low Town Meeting turnout.
“It doesn’t stifle any discussion,” he said of electronic voting. “But I think it really takes a burden off the voter when it comes time to make the vote.”
Salvucci also favors electronic voting, but expressed concern over its ease of use, especially for seniors.
“I like the idea of the device,” Salvucci said. “I like the idea of secret ballots because you vote the way you want to vote. It’s that simple.”
Seele discounted concern about intimidation, saying he has not received any complaints from voters about it.
“We have a tradition here in this town of standing up and being counted for you vote,” Seele said. “I’ve not gotten the sense … that there was any sort of recrimination or intimidation going on against anybody.”
He called it “probably the largest conceptual issue” around electronic voting.
Police Chief Scott Benton again argued that intimidation could cut both ways, as his department “doesn’t make everybody happy.”
While the police have a lot of supporters in town, he said the job doesn’t always make friends in performing their duties.
“I’m not saying I’m against [electronic voting],” he said. “In my line or work, I’m here to represent our department and look at the misuse because that’s what we deal with.”
Seele said he is also concerned about the nuts and bolts of how it would work, especially for the disabled and those uncomfortable with the technology.
“I’m all for technology,” he said. “But I wonder if this is a hammer in search of a nail.”
Lambiase, who works in Duxbury where electronic devices — but only on close votes — are used, said officials in that town calculated they only saved four minutes in an eight-hour town meeting.
“Personally, I don’t agree with it,” he said. “I’m more of the spirit that Town Meeting is to be an open town meeting and we should not be afraid to get up and speak our mind and be proud of our vote.”
Green said the discussion toward making Town Meeting more efficient is a healthy one, but said more information is needed before any decision is made.
IT Director Josh MacNeil said a lot depends on the company used and whether devices are leased or purchased, but agreed with Green that more information is needed.
“I agree with everything that’s been said here,” said Town Administrator Frank Lynam. “I can agree that the concerns people have are valid, because I can remember town meetings when I may have been the only one standing up.”
He said people genuinely feel intimidated in voting for contentious issues.
“I don’t know that that’s a reason to do this,” Lynam said. “I think it’s something we should look at.”