Bourne, Mass., Mulls Benefits of E-Voting for Town Meetings

Town officials argued citizens might be apprehensive about taking a stand on hot-button issues if other residents are sitting next to them in a meeting. An electronic voting system would allow them to cast votes without the fear of reprisal.

by Beth Treffeisen, Cape Cod Times / November 26, 2018
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(TNS) — After a special town meeting in October went into the late hours of the evening due to two secret ballot votes, town officials are considering going electronic.

If approved, Bourne, Mass., will join only a handful of towns across the state that have chosen to lease or purchase electronic voting devices for town meetings.

On Cape Cod, only Falmouth and Eastham participate in electronic voting for town meetings, according to Dottie Powers, town clerk of Westwood.

Powers conducted a survey in May 2017 that showed 10 towns in the state are using electronic voting. She said she knows of three other towns using electronic voting that did not make it into the survey, bringing the total to 13.

The town of Westwood is looking into purchasing or renting equipment as well, she said.

"I think it is something that a lot of towns are looking into," Powers said.

At a Nov. 13 joint session of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee, members began discussing a switch to electronic voting devices for town meetings, both for efficiency and voter peace of mind.

During heated discussussions, such as whether to ban recreational marijuana establishments in town — that was the hot topic at the Oct. 1 special town meeting — voters may be wary of taking a stand if their neighbor or friend is sitting next to them, said Selectman Peter Meier, chairman of the board.

With an electronic clicker, other people won't know which way they are voting, he said.

"There is a price for doing it, but I think it will make town meeting more efficient because the votes will be instantaneous and I think town meeting will move a lot faster," Meier said.

This isn't the first time the town has looked into it, town clerk Barry Johnson said. But now it looks like the technology has become better and prices have gone down, he said.

The town is looking at two companies, Turning Technology and Option Technologies, looking at pricing options and which technology would work best for the town, Johnson said.

Prices range from $15,000 to $20,000 a year, Johnson said.

A working group made up of members of the Board of Selectmen, the Finance Committee, the town moderator and representatives of the public who are interested is being formed, Johnson said. Together, they will look at what different companies have to offer and gauge what people think about the new technology, he said.

Once a decision is made, the funding will be a line item in the 2020 budget for the Office of the Town Clerk, Johnson said. The goal is to have something by the next annual town meeting, scheduled for May 6, he said.

In Eastham, the choice to go electronic came in May 2015 when the decision to establish a municipal water system came up for a vote at a town meeting with over 1,500 voters in attendance, said Susan Fischer, Eastham town clerk.

The article kept failing because people were afraid to vote, Fischer said. It was a very divisive proposal, she said.

When they switched to the electronic voting system, it passed, Fischer said.

Eastham uses Option Technologies, which also has welcome stations to check voters in, she said. There used to be lines of people waiting to be checked in before a town meeting, but now it runs smoothly, Fischer said.

Electronic voting does come with a price, Fischer said. The town leases the equipment for about $22,000 a year.

There have been some special town meetings at which the town decided to forgo electronic voting to save money, Fischer said. But those town meetings had only a few articles and were not controversial, she said.

Falmouth began using electronic voting about a year ago, said David Vieira, Falmouth town moderator. Because Falmouth is a representative town meeting, there is a set amount of clickers needed, making it an easy choice to purchase the equipment from Turning Technologies, he said.

The technology cost the town $15,000, which paid for the hardware, software and technical support, Vieira said.

For Falmouth, the decision to convert came after one too many close votes, he said.

"It ensures the accuracy of the town and does expedite the process," Vieira said.

Plus, the technology is very simple to use, he said. Press 1 for yes and 2 for no. There is a screen that shows in real time the name of the voter and when they voted, Vieira said. After a minute is given for a vote, a bar graph comes up to show the yes versus no vote.

"At the beginning the longer-standing members were kind of a little nervous about it," Vieira said. But after it was put in their hands and they used it, he said, they thought, "Oh, this is actually pretty simple."

Back in Bourne, switching to electronic technology might be one way to get more residents engaged.

Selectmen noted that it is important to try to engage more people through getting childcare or possibly changing the night to a Saturday.

"Engaging new people is really, really important because town meeting, I think, is about ready to die in many ways," Selectman George Slade said.

©2018 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.