Annual Town Meeting Goes Electric

Nantucket’s Annual Town Meeting will be different this year. Faster. Easier to vote. And worth attending for some who have stayed away. Here’s why. 

Back in the day, when the population on Nantucket was much smaller, and “kids and dogs ruled the downtown,” according to one local native we know, it was easy for the community to keep an eye on itself. Everyone knew everyone and parents would keep tabs on each other’s children if they saw them around the island. As a result, there was, for some, a chilling effect on one’s behavior. Eyes were everywhere. This was a good thing if you were a parent. But fast forward to today and you can see that this level of public scrutiny might not work for people who vote.

We’ve heard from more than a few people who say they don’t attend town meeting because they don’t want to be forced to raise their hand and let friends, customers, employers, and others see how they vote. It’s far easier to follow one’s conscience and vote the way we want to when no one is watching — like when we go into the voting booth.

That’s why the town is experimenting with technology to allow people to vote electronically at Annual Town Meeting. Here are the details. 

The solution that the town is using is from a company called Option Technologies in Florida. They already work with several towns in Massachusetts who have town meetings. The units will be handed out at check-in and they look like this. Despite the numerous buttons, there will be only three working ones: “Yes,” “No,” and “Clear.” There will be a test vote prior to starting the meeting to make sure everyone is comfortable with the process, and Option Technologies reps will be on hand to troubleshoot.

Not only will all voting be anonymous, but this technology may also speed up the meeting (a huge bonus in a year with 117 articles on the warrant). There will be no hand counts. No groups trying to shout down one another by declaring “aye” or “no” really, really loudly. Just push a few buttons and 30 seconds later we will know the result. 

There will still be discussions, speeches and people standing to raise points of order. Roberts Rules and town meeting traditions will still apply; that aspect of the meeting will remain the same.

The downside? One minor drawback is that the public will not be able to see how their elected officials vote. We used to be able to gauge the positions of select board members or planning board folks or administration just by watching them closely during wedge-issue votes. That will not be possible during this year’s meeting. If you want to know how your elected officials voted, you’re going to have to ask them. 

Which seems like a small price to pay to make voting easier and accessible for more people.

So, if this technology works, what does the future of town meeting look like? Will town meeting only require one evening in the future instead of two or three? And will it someday be possible for people to watch the meeting on TV and vote from home? After all, we bank from home and shop from home on our phones, why not vote from home? 

No matter how this experiment turns out, it’s clear that it opens the door for more people to participate, which can only be a good thing.

Have a great Sunday. 

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