For several hundred years, not much has changed when it comes to a New England public voting at a Town Meeting. Citizens gather to hear the issues, make comments, and vote on whether or not to adopt a measure. Voting often takes place through a show of colored cards which people wave in the air to indicate yea or nay. Where there’s a clear majority, an outcome is declared without further ado. But if a majority is unclear or citizens call for a count, Town Meeting moderators will ask attendees to keep their cards in the air while specially-tasked meeting tellers move through the crowds and count the number of cards held in the air.
The process can make for a long evening—often several long evenings when vote counts are repeatedly challenged or a sufficiency of citizens petition to hold a secret paper ballot instead of one in which everyone can see how everyone else votes. And while this process may be ideal for promoting civil discourse and engagement during normal times, 2020 was hardly normal. With COVID-19 ravaging the country, town administrators had to consider that a traditional Town Meeting might become a super-spreader event. But did they have a choice? The bylaws in many a New England town require a Town Meeting for certain decisions. Not holding one at all wasn’t an option.
Administrators in the town of Wenham, MA, decided to meet the challenge by splitting the 2020 Town Meeting into two sessions. The first public voting addressed only the financial questions that required a vote before the end of July, 2020. These were non-contentious questions and meeting organizers opted to hold the meeting outdoors beneath a tent, with each participant masked and sitting at least six feet from other participants. Citizens still waved colored cards to indicate support a given matter, but the first meeting was over in little more than an hour.
“We saved all the non-financial articles for the second meeting held in October,” says Anthony Ansaldi, the former Wenham Town Administrator who oversaw Town Meetings in 2020. “We knew that some of those articles could have been contentious, which was a real concern because when we have contentious Town Meetings it’s not unusual for a meeting to last three or four hours. That wasn’t going to work during a pandemic. We could not ask people to come together, even socially distanced, for that long.”
When Ansaldi heard about another Massachusetts town using an electronic voting system during Town Meeting, he was intrigued. Hand-held clickers could accelerate the voting process and eliminate the delays that occur when close votes require a hand recount (which could take 20-30 minutes per vote). But Ansaldi had a serious concern: New England Town Meetings are traditionally very public events. Everyone present can see how everyone else votes—and many New Englanders consider this an important aspect of Town Meeting.
“Some residents really don’t want votes to be anonymous,” says Ansaldi. “They want to see how their neighbors vote. You can see them writing little notes about how people voted. Sometimes we do hold secret ballots, but that’s an exception that only happens when a sufficient number of people call for it.” The software can be configured for public voting option easily and switch back to anonymous whenever needed.
In his early research into electronic voting systems, Ansaldi could see that certain vendors promoted the security and anonymity of their software. But for the citizens of Wenham, that wasn’t a benefit. Clickers might speed the completion of Town Meeting, but the public accountability would be lost.
When Ansaldi discovered Meridia’s EZ-VOTE solution, though, that concern vanished. EZ-VOTE can be set up for anonymous or user-identified vote tabulation. As residents arrived for Town Meeting, registrars provided them with wireless clickers whose ID numbers were entered next to their names in a spreadsheet stored on a shared server. The EZ-VOTE software, running on another laptop inside the tent, could import the information from that shared spreadsheet and then project residents’ names on a large voting tabulation screen for all to see. That approach would enable Wenham to hold the publicly-accountable Town Meeting that residents wanted while also enabling town administrators to conduct the meeting in a minimal period of time.
“The value of EZ-VOTE was evident immediately,” Ansaldi says. “Everyone in town knew how long votes usually took, but with EZ-VOTE we had a complete and accurate vote count in, literally, 30 seconds. And even when the vote was close there was no question about its accuracy. There were no calls for hand recounts that could have taken half an hour to complete.”
Indeed, in showing the residents of Wenham how to use the clickers, the Interim Town Moderator directed them to look at the screen to see how their practice votes were associated with their name on the screen. Everyone could see that the screen reflected the vote they had cast, which created confidence in the system from the start.
“Instead of having a Town Meeting that carried on for three or four hours,” says Nicole Roebuck, Executive Assistant to the Wenham Town Administrator, “we were done in a little over an hour. We even recorded the whole event on YouTube so that residents who did not want to come out could see how the meeting went and how residents voted.”
“My sense is that the residents of Wenham will continue to use the EZ-VOTE system even when we don’t need to worry about the pandemic and social distancing,” says Ansaldi. “People like the Town Meeting process, but they’d rather get it done in one hour rather than four. Time is precious, and in the past we were asking them to give up a full evening or a Saturday afternoon to participate. EZ-VOTE definitely helped address a public health problem brought on by the pandemic, but it has also shown a new way to conduct Town Meetings and I think people are very excited by that.”