HomeLETTER TO THE EDITORIs the Requirement to Attend Town Meeting Unintended Voter Suppression?

Is the Requirement to Attend Town Meeting Unintended Voter Suppression?

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By: Bill Taffel, Westford Resident

Let Us Vote!

Westford is creating a “Committee to Study Ways to Increase Attendance at Town Meeting” to address the chronically poor attendance.  Typically only a few percent of eligible voters attend, making decisions affecting the whole town.  This committee is misdirected. Rather than spend more time making futile efforts to increase attendance, it should focus on the real goal – increasing citizen participation in the governing process.

This could readily be achieved by allowing citizens to vote on warrant articles without attending town meeting.  Town meeting would still be held, but people could also vote at precinct polls or by mail.

Spending hours in a long, tedious, sometimes combative meeting is a hurdle that many voters cannot surmount.  Many people would like their voices heard, but for one reason or another are unable to attend the meeting.  They range from young people with families to senior citizens with disabilities.  Being able to vote without attending would be a huge benefit to these people.  The requirement to attend town meeting has become, in effect, unintended voter suppression.  In 1997, a commission of the Massachusetts Moderators Association looked into such a voting proposal, and decided against it. Now, 24 years later and despite our efforts, we are still faced with the problem.  The commission’s 1997 white paper summarized the problems well – the identical issues exist today:

  • “The requirement that the voter be present in order to vote “disenfranchises” many people who cannot attend because of work, responsibility for children, business travel, etc. Some town meeting issues are cut and dried and do not require the voter to be present for the debate in order to vote intelligently.
  • There are many means by which the voter can be informed on the issues, such as the community cable TV channel, a page on the Internet or a Web site, a paragraph in the local newspaper, or a voter mailing.
  • Debates in town meeting go on too long, and inhibit getting things done in a timely and efficient fashion.
  • It is totally undemocratic to have the decisions relating to town government being made year after year by a small group of citizens who attend town meeting.
  • Because of the time demands on young families today, town meeting has become a group of older people, whose views are not representative.
  • Many responsible and thoughtful people are very uncomfortable about voting in public at town meeting. Secret ballots at town meeting are time-consuming and cumbersome.”

There are obstacles to implementing my proposal, including at the state level, but none that could not be solved.  Westford’s new committee should focus its energy on developing an implementable plan to enable citizens to vote on the warrant without attending town meeting.

What do you think?  Send thoughts/comments to [email protected].