Nearly everything is automated these days, from cars to refrigerators to thermostats, but Town Meeting remains steadfast against the convenience of technology. Here in Andover, voters still prefer to raise their hands or stand and be counted, than record votes at Town Meeting with electronic clickers, even if push-button voting could save us hours of time each spring. Or do they?
Once again, electronic voting, one of the single largest initiatives undertaken by Sheila Doherty in her tenure as town moderator, has failed. There are myriad reasons, though one suspects a basic lack of trust is at the heart of them all. Why else would the move to electronic voting be rejected, for a second time?
The outcome reflects poorly on Doherty’s leadership, as well as Town Meeting itself. This wonderful, anachronistic tradition of democracy, with roots extending all the way to ancient Greece, needs to be relegated to the history books, at least in its current form.
Fortunately a government study committee is being convened this summer. That much was approved at Town Meeting the other night. Hopefully it will do more than just repeat the tired, old mantra that Town Meeting is the purest form of government and needs to be retained.
For a community of more than 35,000 souls, Andover’s Town Meeting spends an inordinate amount of time sifting through granular projects and details of government that could be dispensed with by a far smaller group of individuals.
And, as the e-voting initiative shows, the town meeting system is flawed.
There are so many obvious reasons why electronic voting should have been adopted, it's pointless to list them all. Accuracy and efficiency are the most obvious. It would save time and would be far more precise than the pointing and clicking counts of Town Meeting wardens, who then yell numbers up to the moderator, with her sometimes repeating those numbers correctly, other times not. People milling about in the aisles are chastened by Doherty because they aren't sitting down. The scene is chaotic and archaic.
One thing Doherty is fond of saying is that, in the end, Town Meeting always gets things right. In this case, it did.
The presentation of electronic voting by former Selectman Brian Major was superficial. Summarizing the work of a review committee, he did not explain in much detail how the technology works. He fumbled about costs, first going ahead in a slideshow, then going back.
Sure, a committee spent 11 months on this. But, until Monday night of Town Meeting, the group hadn't been seen by anybody in town except for selectmen.
Had they been serious about winning public support, the committee would have held forums, appeared on Andover TV, written letters to the editor. In other words, they should have done what the proponents of the senior center improvements did. Advocates for the latter were clear, open and transparent about what they wanted and why. And the town supported that renovation project unanimously — with many people making a special visit to the Collins Center to cast a vote in favor.
Not so much with the e-voting committee. It seemed to do all of its work behind the scenes, as it did the first time this idea was floated.
So, when committee members got to this year’s Town Meeting, where they offered a weak presentation on the benefits of e-voting, there were plenty of questions to answer — and suspicions to overcome.
What could guarantee the security of electronic voting? Oh, it's fine, was the basic response.
Michael Morris, of 11 Abbott St., seemed to scold people, telling them to "calm down" and "respect the integrity of the process of appointing a committee.” Then, he made light of the fact that some who opposed the measure had the gall to talk about their career experience in computer technology and security.
He must be kidding. His comments were condescending, and the town is lucky to have smart people who show up at Town Meeting with actual experience and knowledge about these kinds of things. It’s something that should be embraced, not mocked.
There are better, more efficient ways to handle this — and to handle local governance. And while Doherty held herself as a neutral arbiter of the debate over e-voting, with no vested interest in any outcome, she’s clearly been among those advocating for its study. Indeed, it’s been a major initiative on her watch.
While she may not be wrong about the substance — notwithstanding real concerns about the security of e-voting — the underwhelming presentation and its predictable result portray a lack of confidence in her leadership.
They also illustrate the weakness of Town Meeting itself.