Town Meetings Get Remote Voting Option in North Andover, Mass.

Residents can weigh in on pressing town business without actually attending through a Google form being tested by officials. The votes will not carry any weight in the passage or denial of items.

by Bryan McGonigle, Wicked Local North / April 30, 2019

(TNS) — For this year's annual Town Meeting, Town Moderator Mark DiSalvo has launched his newest initiative: remote voting.

DiSalvo teased the idea last month and has now launched the page (in Google form) on which voters can chime in from home — albeit with votes that won't count in any official capacity — from home, or work, or the grocery store or wherever they have Internet access.

"North Andover continues to be a laboratory for what Town Meeting may be like in the future. One sometimes hears that Town Meeting does not represent the opinion of the citizenry at large," DiSalvo said in a statement announcing the new idea. "In order to test this presumption, I will be conducting a survey inviting the public to state their opinion on each article whether they attend Town Meeting or not. Comparative results will be published post the adjournment of the meeting."

You can find the form at northandoverma.gov/tmsurvey. Just put in an email address, click "yes" or "no" on each warrant article, and submit. The survey will be available on the town website until Town Meeting adjourns.

It must be emphasized that votes submitted online will not have any weight in the passage or denial of any warrant article. Only those in the room on May 14 will have an actual say. Remote voting will be a test for informational purposes only, with DiSalvo stressing that "completing this is not a substitution to attending Town Meeting as all deliberative benefits and power is in the room."

In fact, you can fill out the online form and attend Town Meeting, if you wish.

DiSalvo — chairman of the Massachusetts Moderators Association 2040 Committee now in his seventh year as North Andover's town moderator — has made a habit of adding new innovations to Town Meeting, the town's legislative body and the oldest form of government in New England. His earlier changes included three-minute speaking time limits, requiring financial disclosure from speakers (where it's warranted), providing child care, live-streaming the meeting, electronic check-in and more.

"We need to ensure that Town Meeting does not become an anachronism — a dinosaur of governance anchored to history and not relevant to the lives and society in which we live," said DiSalvo. "I am pleased by the reception of the community for my innovations and that other communities in the Commonwealth are now planning the adoption of what we have pioneered."

But remote voting has never been tried before, anywhere. And DiSalvo conceded that an actual virtual Town Meeting is likely many years away. But this test is a way to get concrete data to start that discussion.

"While Town Meeting processes should not be set in stone, change should guarantee that it preserves the very nature of participatory democracy so that Town Meeting remains a vibrant, modern and forward-looking form of government that embraces the changes in a contemporary society and keeps it relevant and respected," DiSalvo wrote in his annual Moderator's Message.

Town Meeting will be held on May 14 at 7 p.m. in the North Andover High School auditorium.

©2019 Wicked Local North, Danvers, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.