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Chelmsford in October became the first Massachusetts community to make official use of electronic voting at Town Meeting, a move designed to improve accountability and save time.
The idea originated with Town Manager Paul Cohen, who described the voting system, developed by Florida-based Option Technologies Interactive, as similar to what is in place at the State House. Town Meeting members used handsets to cast votes, and each person’s vote appeared on a large screen at the front of the meeting room. How each person voted also could be seen on local-access cable TV.
On Oct. 17, the first night of a two-evening session, Town Meeting representatives got through 18 of 23 warrant articles in a reasonable time, according to Town Moderator Richard DeFrietas.
Chelmsford, one of 36 Massachusetts towns with a representative town meeting, has 162 Town Meeting members. Previously, voting was done by a show of voting cards, or, if the vote was close, a hand count. In either case, no record was kept of how individuals voted.
The electronic-voting results, according to Cohen, will be stored on the town’s website, giving residents the opportunity to review a Town Meeting member’s voting record before deciding whether to re-elect him or her.
Hand-count votes are not expected to entirely disappear; if seven representatives vote to challenge the results of an electronic vote, a hand count will be conducted. But having fewer such counts should significantly shorten meetings, according to Cohen, who estimates that a typical hand count takes 10 to 15 minutes.
The cost to the town for the new system, approved by Town Meeting last spring, was less than $10,000. Cohen said it is possible that the system could be shared with other communities, assuming that the town meetings were not taking place at the same time.
Electronic voting was introduced on a trial basis at Wayland’s Open Town Meeting in April.