Town Clerk Mary-Anne Szeniawski told selectmen recently she wanted to “plant a seed” and begin a discussion now about the town’s voting habits and state requirements — even suggesting the town consider “the huge white elephant” of reducing the number of questions on the May ballot.
The state has mandated that municipalities use the same printers for town ballots as for state ballots, at a significant cost to the town; the town also is mandated to use machines provided by or certified by the state, many of which are coming to the end of their useful life; and the future of ranked choice voting and its impact on her office is unknown but could come into play as soon as this coming June, she said.
Into this situation, she said, she adds another factor: in voting tabulations for all elections held between 2010 and 2017, “there was a 98 percent approval rate” of the items on the ballot. “These statistics are such that we do an awful lot of work for mostly positive results. I’m not saying we want people to do anything different, that we want them to vote no, but the cost of preparing ballots, proofing them and programming the machines is ramping up. I thought it might be time to have a discussion.”
She said in her reading of the town charter, there has to be line-item budgeting — so that the budget prepared by the towns and schools, reviewed by their respective boards, and further reviewed by the Budget Committee can be as detailed as necessary.
“But it doesn’t say line-item voting,” she said. Given the fact that nearly all ballot items pass, “why are we still doing it this way? Does the town want to continue to vote this way and pay for it or are they willing to combine budgets on the ballot? Is it time to start combining what we do?”
She said talks to people at the polls, “and what I get from people is, ‘Why are we voting on the definition of a driveway? I don’t know whether we need a car or not.’ Or, ‘Does it matter if we vote yes or not, because it’s the same amount (as last year).’”
She said the contract with the state for equipment and ballots continues through December, 2019, “so for this fiscal year, it’s the status quo. But I do think it’s something we should think about. I could print my ballots for 13 cents a piece; this contract is for 25 cents a piece. So when you have an election with 10 ballots, that’s $2.50 a person. The bottom line is it’s money.”
She asked selectmen to consider placing a nonbinding question on the May ballot asking people if they would consider a ballot with fewer items.
Selectmen were none too crazy about the idea of changing the line item vote. “Once you start combining items , you have to form a charter commission to do that — which we did seven years ago and people overwhelmingly came back and voted that down. They really like the line item vote,” said Mike Estes.
Robert Palmer raised another issue. As “someone who has to govern,” he looks at each vote carefully. While agreeing most items pass, he said if something passes 55 percent to 45 percent, “I say, you know there are a lot of people who aren’t supportive of this measure even though it passed. How come?”
On the other hand, the selectmen indicated that if Szeniawski needed additional machines, they would be amenable to listening.
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