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Problems with Electronic Voting

By C. Peter R. Gossels, Moderator of
the Town of Wayland

I recently received a letter from a bright, imaginative junior at the High School, who suggested that Wayland adopt a form of electronic voting that would save some of the time required to count the votes at town meetings. Similar suggestions have been offered by other interested residents even though most of our votes are cast as voice votes, which take almost no time at all. In Wayland, we average only 1.31 standing counted votes for each session of town meeting.

Realizing that the Town could not afford to purchase or rent the keypads and other equipment otherwise required to record each vote cast, the correspondent suggested that voters

could bring their cell phones to town meeting, register their number with the checkers, who would enter them into a computer rented for the occasion, which would be programmed to receive text messages from each registered cell phone, add the votes pro and con and display the results on a screen large enough for all to see.

At first glance, the student's proposal sounded interesting, because everyone using a registered cell phone to cast a vote would be required to remain in the Field House while the votes are counted.

On second thought, however, problems with her proposal became evident:

1. The cost of purchasing or renting a computer, a screen and the software required to institute such a system could be substantial.

2. One or more savvy people would have to be employed to register, operate and maintain such a system. Registration and entry of each cell phone number alone would complicate and add to the time now required to check in each voter. And imagine the time that would be required to register and enter more than 2300 such numbers into a computer and the errors that will inevitably occur when the checkers enter or transpose even one of the ten digits in a cell phone number. The voters disenfranchised by those errors will not even realize that their votes have not (and cannot) be counted.

3. In order to maintain the security and trustworthiness of our voting procedure, the checkers will also be required to delete the number of each voter, who leaves the Field House, from the numbers that the computer will accept and count. That may not seem much of a problem near the beginning of each session, but it will be overwhelming near the end of each session as more and more people are anxious to get home. And imagine what would happen when hundreds of voters leave virtually at once after a controversial issue has been voted on. The checkers will not be able to delete all of their numbers and hundreds of people will be able to vote from their home while watching Channel 9.

4. All of the foregoing does not address the problem posed by those who do not have or do not wish to register their cell phone at town meeting. Should they ultimately be counted the old fashioned way?

5. It also does not address the problem of disenfranchising those who are not adept at the text messaging required to vote under the

system proposed, those who accidentally press the wrong button(s) or fail to unblock their caller ID as they enter the Field House.

6. Nor does the proposal address the problems with cell phone reception in Wayland or problems with the reliability and security of electronic voting machines that have been reported all across the country of late.

But there is a fundamental problem with even the limited form of electronic voting proposed: it would substitute a system of voting by secret ballot for the open town meetings which were created by law and developed in Wayland over the course of 368 years of practice and tradition. Although a majority at town meeting can decide to vote on a motion by secret ballot, such motions have been defeated on all but two occasions during my 26 years as your Moderator.

Such motions have been defeated, because town meetings were created by the Commonwealth to permit “all qualified inhabitants (to) meet, deliberate, act and vote in their natural and personal capacities in the exercise of their corporate powers”. Opinion of Justices, 229 Mass. 601, 607 (1918). In other words, every voter, who attends Wayland's open town meetings to participate in deciding how much our town officers can spend, how those expenditures shall be allocated, how much each resident shall be taxed, how the use of their real estate shall be regulated as well as many other issues, must expect to stand and be counted when a voice vote is inconclusive.

If we want to retain the open form of town meeting that has helped Wayland to become the special community it is today, I recommend that we retain our long-standing tradition, which gives our voters that opportunity to stand and be counted.

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