Town Meetings in Stow, Massachusetts, are a setting where tradition has long held sway. Hundreds of residents crowd into a single room to consider matters related to budgets, zoning issues, citizen petitions, and other concerns, then raise colored cards in the air to cast a yea or nay vote for each item on the warrant. It’s a very public display of civic pride and priorities where everyone present can see how everyone else voted, in contrast to a virtual multi room voting session where votes are counted automatically and often anonymously.
Town Meetings can last for several hours as discussions are held and votes are tallied. Close votes can require hand recounts by pairs of volunteers and highly controversial votes can result in a paper ballot vote. Lengthy warrants, extended discussions, and the necessity for recounts or paper ballots can cause a single meeting to stretch over multiple nights.
But in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stow officials knew that this tradition could easily lead to a public health disaster. It simply wasn’t safe to bring together hundreds of people and try to conduct business in the usual manner. “COVID hit hard and we needed to figure out how to run our Town Meeting efficiently and achieve its goals,” says Deb Seith, Assistant Town Clerk in Stow. “We could not just skip it. We needed to find a way for our residents to feel they could safely participate.”
Stow’s Board of Selectmen and Town Moderator suggested having indoor and outdoor seating options for the meeting as a way to accommodate several hundred people at a responsible social distance. But that approach created new challenges. “How would we tabulate the results?” asked Seith. “How much additional time would it take to complete dual-site voting—and how long would people be outdoors in the July heat?” That last concern held the potential for additional health problems for attendees. “We needed a way to get the voting done as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
Ross Perry, Stow resident and Town Administrator of nearby Sterling, Massachusetts, told Seith about Sterling’s experience with the EZ-VOTE electronic voting solution from Meridia Interactive Solutions. Using a wireless electronic solution would enable Stow citizens to gather while social distancing and vote on articles faster and more accurately than traditional Town Meeting procedures would ever allow. It could also simplify the challenge of multi room voting because votes could be cast and counted from both locations simultaneously.
Seith spoke to administrators in other Massachusetts towns that had incorporated electronic voting systems and received similar positive feedback. As a matter of due diligence, she reached out to several electronic voting solution vendors for quotes, whereupon she immediately encountered a new challenge: Stow’s Town Meeting was to take place in just two weeks. Only one vendor could affordably provide the clickers, software, and support that quickly—Meridia, whose EZ-VOTE solution had already been recommended. “Because I knew Ross had vetted Meridia on behalf of the town of Sterling and knew him to be both thorough and fiscally responsible, I felt comfortable going forward,” says Seith.
The team from Meridia set up the EZ-VOTE system and the PowerPoint presentation through which voting results would be available in real time. On the day of the Town Meeting, more than 200 clickers were distributed to assembled residents. After a brief tutorial for on using the clickers and how to verify that votes had been recorded, the Town Meeting commenced. While other Town Meetings configure EZ-VOTE to identify how each citizen has voted on an article—mimicking the voting visibility that would occur in a traditional Town Meeting—Stow chose to configure EZ-VOTE to capture only the number of yea and nay votes. The Moderator received the results for both locations and would immediately announce the total votes cast, yea and nay counts, and whether it passed by clear majority vote.
“Everybody thought the clickers were great,” says Seith. “The indoor and outdoor votes were captured simultaneously and tallied in seconds—which wouldn’t have been possible if we had been voting in a traditional manner.”
The Moderator could see at a glance how many people had voted and announce a countdown to close the voting window. The system eliminated the need for recounts/hand counts for any close votes and no one questioned the accuracy of the vote count. Despite the new structure and dual-site accommodation for the pandemic, the meeting went smoothly and wrapped up quickly.
“Meridia’s customer service has been outstanding,” says Seith. “We had such a short timeframe in which to pull this off. Other vendors thought I was nuts. They said there was no affordable way to do this in two weeks. But Meridia did it. They even had backup equipment in case something broke. At one point my own laptop wasn’t playing nicely, but Meridia had a spare one right there and let us use that. That level of support was huge.”
In towns throughout New England, the tradition of Town Meeting runs deep, as does a tradition of rising to the occasion when confronted by adversity. For Stow, EZ-VOTE provides a compelling solution to the challenge of bringing their residents together for a multi room voting session at a time when “together” can pose real risks.
“We’ll use the clickers again in the spring,” says Seith, “even if social distancing isn’t the driving force. People really liked having the option to participate from outside. People raved about the entire setup and told me it was the best way ever to have a Town Meeting.”