Town E-Voting Raises Questions in Plymouth, Mass.

Uncounted votes on a $16.9 million project have some officials criticizing the town’s electronic voting system.

by Frank Mand, Wicked Local South/Mariner / November 14, 2017
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(TNS) –– PLYMOUTH – Conspiracy? Technological glitch? Procedural error? Three weeks after the fall Town Meeting there is still no consensus as to what could, or should be done to avoid a recurrence of the snafu that seems to have changed the outcome of the vote on the Water Street Promenade.

What appears to have happened is that several representatives' votes were not counted for what was an amended version of Article 4a, which would have approved the $16.9 million project but not funded it until and unless the town received at least 20 percent of the total cost from outside agencies.

Approval required a two-thirds majority and the vote was 81-41, just a fraction of a vote shy of the necessary level of support. Add those three votes however – all of which were in favor – and the article would have been approved.

When the three individuals who were "disenfranchised" told their story, the Board of Selectmen decided to hold a Special Town Meeting to right that apparent inequity. That decision was also influenced by the fact that, if no Special was called, the town would have lost at least $1.7 million (in MassWorks grant funds) promised by the state in support of the Promenade project.

The selectmen's decision in turn led to cries of foul from several Town Meeting reps who had originally voted against the project and don't want to see it reconsidered.

Town Meeting Rep. Alan Costello reviewed the tapes of the meeting and the voting records and implied, at several recent public meetings, that the claims of three voters were suspicious and not supported by the facts.

Word of a letter from the president of Option Technologies International – the vendor that sold the system to the town and manages it during Town Meeting – angered Costello, who suggested Tuesday night that the Board was "cherry picking" the information that they released to the public.

Costello said the OTI letter should be sent to all Town Meeting reps and, the next morning, it was.

Tuesday night's meeting was most notable for the appearance of Moderator Steven Triffletti, who argued that the fault lay with Town Meeting representatives who often did not pay attention when the screen showing their roll call votes appeared after each vote.

If they did, and noticed a problem, they would only need to raise a "point of order" for the moderator to halt the proceedings until the situation had been rectified.

Triffletti said he doesn't feel that Town Meeting should be slowed down or that more time is needed for each vote, though OTI's president does.

In the letter to Town Manager Melissa Arrighi, OTI President Mark Fite offered several suggestions for avoiding the problems that were encountered.

"Our preliminary recommendations at this juncture include," Fite wrote Arrighi:

  • Practice votes at the beginning of Town Meeting so that new members are clear on how to vote.
  • Increasing the voting period to make sure all members have had an opportunity to register their vote.
  • Instructing Town Meeting members on what to do if their vote is not properly recorded when the votes are displayed on the public screen. They should stand up and report their vote verbally to the moderator. The moderator repeats the name and correction so the town clerk and OTI voting administrator can record these corrections and implement them on the tally and official reports.
  • Implement a new exchange procedure to reduce the time required to issue a replacement handset. This procedure should include a pause in voting activity until the exchange process is complete and all voters have a working device.

Precinct 3 Town Meeting Rep. Sheila Fey was one of the three votes that appeared not to have been counted and she did everything but scream out "stop!"

When she noted a problem with her handset Fey went directly to the OTI table, which determined her handset was faulty.

Fey relayed the OTI rep her votes on each article while they considered what to do with her faulty handset, and spoke directly to the assistant town moderator at that time. Nonetheless, her vote on the amended motion for 4A was not counted.

Triffletti did acknowledge that Assistant Moderator Brian Alosi should have stopped the proceedings at that point but was adamant that the time allotted for voting or the speed in which the meeting proceeds in general were not factors and should not be changed going forward.

"It is always the case that if someone has an issue with voting, a Town Meeting member can rise on a point of order to question a vote or correct a vote," Triffletti said.

"At the time we voted and debated on 4A, there was no notice to Town Meeting, or to the moderator, that any Town Meeting member had an issue with the voting. No one rose to say 'point of order.'" Triffletti said. "Town Meeting members were afforded procedural due process."

Selectman Tony Provenzano agreed in part with Triffletti but argued that it was understandable that Fey thought she had done what was required to be sure her vote was counted.

"I think it's important it be made clear to Town Meeting that you have to get up – and you have to make a point of order – but in this case you had a member speaking to the assistant town manager and it is not an unreasonable assumption that they felt that speaking to the assistant they were speaking to moderator."

That was a lesson learned, Provenzano said, "but I hate to see the outcome determined by the process."

Provenzano said he agreed with his colleagues about the speed at which the preliminary vote tabulations go by.

"If I were to make a helpful suggestion it would be that we may want to slow down a bit," Provenzano said.

The town adopted the electronic system for speed and accuracy, Provenzano added, "and while we are getting the speed we may have lost a little on the accuracy."

Triffletti did agree to emphasize the need for Town Meeting reps to look for their own votes when the screens flash by, during his pre-meeting commentary.

Town Meeting Rep. Betsy Hall told the Board that discussions on the voting technology and procedures are expected to continue at next week's meeting of the Precinct Chairs Committee.

Some of the changes she hopes to see implemented, Hall said, include additional voting time, that the clickers be cleared well before the voting begins, and for the moderator to explain before each vote just what the vote is about (often time there are competing motions under consideration).

Costello focused on the money.

"What is the cost of electronic voting for the Dec. 6 Special Town Meeting?" he asked, and Arrighi responded quickly.

"Approximately $3,100," she said.

And an additional $1,000 would cover the administrative costs associated with the Special Town Meeting, Arrighi added, bringing the total to approximately $4,100.

©2017 Wicked Local South/Mariner, Marshfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.