Planning is the Secret to Secret Ballot Voting

(from Maine Townsman, January 2007)
By Liz Chapman, Freelance Writer

The secret to making a smooth transition to referendum-style town meeting voting is twofold: think it through and have a Plan B in case voters reject some of your spending requests, according to municipal officials familiar with the practice and others who are about to be.
Waldoboro Town Manager Lee Smith is one of the latest Maine managers to find that the more planning the better before making such a fundamental change in the way a town conducts its business.

“There was not enough discussion and detail about this process provided to the voters by both sides” before they voted on the question, Smith said. “Now we’re stuck (with) trying to figure out how this will work.”

Smith has met many times since the November election with a special committee charged with figuring out exactly how to move from open town meeting to secret balloting to decide scores of warrant articles.

The committee includes one selectman, the town clerk, two planning board members and one resident who was involved in circulating a petition calling for a vote on the question.

Smith told the TOWNSMAN in a recent interview that the implications of the change are more far-reaching than selectmen expected when they agreed to put the question on last November’s election ballot.

By mid-January, both Smith and selectmen were wondering if they could pull off the change in time for this year’s town meeting on June 12, which means the new system must be ready for implementation by mid-February.

By far, the biggest advantage – and selling point – to secret ballot voting is turnout. People have groused for years that attendance at traditional town meetings is puny and often dominated by “special interests” that can easily get their warrant articles passed.

The biggest drawback to the change, officials lament, is the loss of the history, culture and open debate of a traditional town meeting.
“You hear the ‘yes’ and the ‘no,’ but you don’t know why” certain budget items are rejected under the secret balloting system, Smith said.

He confirmed that some people in town who voted in favor of the secret balloting system now complain they did not understand that they would be abandoning the traditional town meeting if they approved secret balloting.

The local referendum question in Waldoboro passed by a strong margin on November 7, as it typically does in the two or three towns that take up the issue in Maine each year.

There are nearly 20 Maine municipalities that now employ a referendum-style town meeting. And while that represents only a fraction of the 400-plus Maine towns that use the town meeting form of government, it also represents a budding trend in recent years toward ballot-box budgets and away from the time-honored traditional open town meeting so unique to New England.

One of the most crucial questions to answer in making a change to secret balloting is what will happen if voters reject certain budget items. Without a strong default position, towns could find themselves without a new budget – or without the money for certain key services.

“I have made enough mistakes that I know what to do and what not to do,” said York Town Clerk Mary-Anne Szeniawski, who has overseen the secret-ballot town meetings in York since it became the first Maine town to implement the system in 1992.

Szeniawski said she “strongly suggests” that towns develop a town charter if they don’t have one. York’s charter is a direct result of changing to referendum-style town meeting, she said, and lays out precisely how the system works and what happens when voters say “no” to certain spending requests.

Under York’s charter, a “yes” vote endorses the selectmen’s proposed new budget, while a “no” vote endorses the current-year budget amount, essentially flat-funding those items.

Each ballot includes 80 to 100 questions, she said, and must be printed on a half-dozen ballot cards for each voter.

“It was a safeguard,” Szeniawski said, “so if people did not support a new operating budget, the town would not be left in a lurch.”
That happened once several years ago, but it involved the school budget and resulted in about a dozen layoffs, Szeniawski said.

The York charter allowed selectmen to hold a “special budget referendum” to take a second vote on the failed school warrant articles if they deemed the situation an emergency.

“The selectmen decided that was not an emergency,” despite the layoffs and other budget cuts, so they let the voters’ decision stand, Szeniawski said.

She acknowledged the “yes/no” system makes it easy for voters to reject budget items, but said York voters have been thoughtful and thorough in voting on the budget.

“Our citizens are very thoughtful in their voting. You can tell that they are picking and choosing,” she said, adding, “We have responsible taxpayers who realize you do need funds to plow snow. They understand the cost of doing business.”

Developing a town charter is especially important, according to Szeniawski and others, because there is no Maine law that sets out the procedure for referendum-style town meetings.

Therefore, as is the case in Waldoboro, which does not have a charter, selectmen are not legally bound to convert to secret balloting even after local voters have approved it by referendum vote.

The state of New Hampshire has that issue covered, according to Susan Slack, an attorney for the New Hampshire Local Government Center.

Slack said the Legislature passed a law in 1995 allowing municipalities to adopt an “official ballot referendum town meeting.” By doing so, it established the rules for the new voting system and obligated local officials to implement it if voters endorsed it.

But even New Hampshire’s system has its weaknesses, Slack said.

Chiefly, the Granite State’s secret balloting system calls for a two-part town meeting. The first session is an open town meeting where voters can debate, discuss and amend the warrant before sending it on for the second part of the meeting some weeks in the future: the secret ballot vote.

The problem with that system, Slack said, is the power given to the relatively few people who show up for the first session. Not only is that number far fewer than those who vote in the second session, it is even fewer than the number of people who used to show up for the traditional open town meetings.

“There’s a lot of power in that,” Slack said of being able to set the financial agenda for the community-wide referendum vote.

Under New Hampshire’s state law, the operational budget is voted on as one item and, if it fails, the “default budget” is the current-year spending plan. The actual ballot gives voters only the two figures to choose between, with no ability to choose a spending figure in-between.

The law also mandates that municipalities either adopt the state law or develop a charter if they want to use a referendum-style town meeting format.

The law further requires that three-fifths of local voters endorse the state law in order for it to be used by the community.

Slack said about 50 New Hampshire towns, mostly the larger ones, use referendum-style town meetings, from a total of about 230 municipalities. Meanwhile, 60 school districts also use the secret-ballot system, she said.

When the state law was first enacted, there was a plethora of towns that converted, Slack said, but now only one or two towns take up the question each year.

The cost of secret balloting lies not only in the loss of the open town meeting, which many people still consider the purest form of government in the nation. According to Szeniawski, there are additional costs that shouldn’t be underestimated or overlooked.
In general, Szeniawski figures it costs the town $1.50 to $2 per voter for each referendum-style town meeting. That includes the cost of extra absentee ballots and envelopes, and bulked-up election day coverage to handle absentee ballots and get the votes counted.
There also can be upfront costs, as Smith in Waldoboro is learning: new equipment such as optical scanners and more voting booths are chief among them.

Then there’s the cost of public education, which can be significant, Szeniawski said.

Over the years, York officials realized that to be successful, the secret-ballot system must include civic education that gives voters some context before they go into the voting booth.

And so the town developed a protocol whereby every registered voter gets a packet of information about a month before the vote. The packet includes a specimen ballot and a summary of each warrant article.

The packet even includes “cheat sheets” that allow voters to sit at home and make their decisions and then bring their papers into the voting booth to make their official votes, Szeniawski said.

Szeniawski, York’s clerk for 25 years, said the informational packet is just one way the town works hard to get residents good information before they vote on the town meeting warrant.

Other efforts include televising all meetings of all municipal boards and holding a budget public hearing in lieu of the open town meeting debate, which she said are now better attended than in the past.

Voter turnout, meanwhile, has climbed remarkably over the years from 150 people at the town’s last open town meeting in 1992, to 4,001 in May 2006 – nearly half of all registered voters in town.

More than half of the votes were cast through absentee ballots, she said, another major advantage to secret-balloting and increasing turnout.

After some 15 years, the voters of York typically approve 85 percent to 90 percent of the annual municipal and school budget requests, the clerk said.

Szeniawski said the power afforded local residents under the secret voting system has not necessarily reduced their displeasure at times over town or school decisions. But she said town officials feel appreciated and trusted by the public.

“Voters are not complacent,” she said, “but they are more involved and they understand how things work.”

The mill town of Rumford is another community that recently voted strongly in favor of referendum-style budget voting. Town Manager Stephen Eldridge and selectmen are in the throes of making the change, which takes effect for the first time in June.

Although a newly-elected selectman and a small group of other residents started a petition to get the question on last year’s ballot, selectmen opted to forego a petition process and put the issue to voters themselves.

The question passed by a 2-to-1 margin, Eldridge said, and while it was merely an advisory vote, the board intends to make the change.
Eldridge said there is talk that perhaps the town should hold an open town meeting before the secret-ballot voting, as is the plan in the town of Gray, which also recently voted to convert to referendum-style budget voting but more in the mold of New Hampshire’s system.

Although some issues remain unresolved, Eldridge said other decisions have been made, such as holding two public hearings before the voting, and keeping the number of warrant articles to a minimum.

Eldridge agrees that voter turnout will increase. He said a typical town meeting in recent years attracted about 150 voters. But he also thinks secret-balloting is a way to cut spending for those voters who couldn’t get the support at open town meeting.

“There are those who want to cut the budget significantly, especially public safety,” he said.

Eldridge could be right, considering that during debate over secret balloting in Westport Island near Wiscasset, one supporter opined, “The rubber stamp effect we often see at (open) town meeting is replaced by a more thoughtful deliberation and less discretionary spending approval,” according to a published report.

Eldridge said he thinks it’s important to explain to voters what will happen if they start axing the budget behind closed curtains, “so people will be very clear when we start cutting services (and staff).”

But not all Maine voters who have the chance opt for secret balloting. Westport Island ended up rejecting the move by a slim margin of 214-196 in a referendum vote last June. Residents followed up at the open town meeting two weeks later by voting to reaffirm their desire to retain an open town meeting format.

The towns of Kennebunk and Dixfield also defeated secret ballot initiatives in 2005 and 2004, respectively.