Electronic voting in Eastham means a very big change

In its recent town meeting, Eastham replaced traditional voting by voice or raised hands with electronic voting. It seems a small thing, this change, a matter mostly of efficiency and accuracy. But it has more profound implications than you would think from the debate leading to it, which seemed to focus mostly on the expense of the new system.

The advantages of electronic voting cited are that it will shorten meetings and improve accuracy. But another big advantage—the “killer app” perhaps—is that it ensures privacy. But it’s a question: is that in fact an advantage? Is privacy a good thing in a town meeting?

In a newspaper story on the new technology when it was in the proposal stage, a former moderator from Westboro, where they use this new system, was quoted as saying that yes, it improves accuracy in vote counting, “but the real accuracy is allowing people to vote without the influence of their neighbors. A neighbor will not be able to look around the room to see how another neighbor votes. A business owner won’t have to worry about potential customers being turned off by a particular stance on an issue.”

In Wellfleet, the neighbor to the north, we muddle on with the tradition inefficiency, the moderator guessing at the voice vote, and when it’s too close to call, appointing counters who go around the room laboriously using little clickers to count raised hands. A few nights ago in a discussion at a Main Street watering hole of Eastham’s decision, several of those present seemed open to the idea of electronic voting. After all, isn’t the secret ballot the very essence of democracy? How can a worker vote freely when his boss is there and could fire him for voting this way or that?

But on the other hand, isn’t the openness and transparency of town meeting the very essence of what has been called the purest form of democracy?

It could be said to be a basic premise of the traditional meeting that your thinking about an issue should not be just individual or personal but on the contrary should be influenced by concern for your neighbors, by knowing how your vote will affect not just your own life but those of others as well, the community sitting around you.

As in that famous Norman Rockwell illustration of Freedom of Speech, it’s called standing up for what you believe, standing up and being counted.

Public voting is a reality check. If you don’t feel comfortable voting publicly—these are your friends and neighbors, remember, not Big Brother— maybe you should reconsider that vote. If you are known for how you want to shape the life you share with fellow citizens, it will make you think more carefully about your votes.

In voting on a big ticket money item perhaps you should be influenced by the presence in the room of neighbors for whom a “yes” vote may mean genuine hardship. Is it just a coincidence that at its first electronic town meeting Eastham finally voted in the all-town water system whose $85 million ticket will certainly be onerous for a lot of the poorer citizens in town?

In Wellfleet’s recent town meeting we voted to add a 13th policeman to the force. In the voting several days later to ratify the proposition 2 ½ override by secret ballot we changed our mind. I wonder what that means.

Secret votes aren’t more accurate. They do have a whole different meaning. In ensuring privacy, electronic voting will eliminate an essential element in town meeting’s traditional version of democracy.

If electronic voting is ever proposed for Wellfleet town meetings, I certainly hope we give it the thoughtful debate it deserves. Publicly.


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