OPINION: Increasing Voter Turnout through Online Voting, Ranked Choice Voting
By John Aram, Contributor
An upcoming Warrant Article at Westwood’s Town Meeting on May 1st proposes to convert the positions of Treasurer and Tax Collector from elected to appointed. The Warrant comes with the recommendation of the State’s Department of Local Services, and it has received unanimous approval of the Charter Review Committee and the Select Board, as well as a favorable hearing at the FinCom Committee.
Few would challenge the reasons behind this change: (1) the size and complexity of municipal financial management have grown substantially since the town’s founding in 1897; (2) the positions are technical and operational as opposed to policy-oriented; (3) financial expertise and experience should override candidates’ popular appeal for these positions, and (4) the change will allow for greater coordination and control of financial planning and implementation. The fact that individuals holding these positions currently are appointed in nearly 85% of municipalities in Massachusetts suggests that many other towns have already recognized these trends.
As it is no small matter to narrow the scope of democracy under any circumstances, this change may lead citizens and public officials to think carefully about the health of local democracy in the town. Participation in local elections in Westwood is embarrassingly low, hovering around 20% of registered voters in recent elections, meaning individuals holding policy positions in town government are supported by a narrow base of public support. Essentially, the Warrant Article transferring two positions from direct public election to appointments rests on what is already a thin electoral mandate.[i]
In Westwood as well as other nearly communities, turnout in elections follows the significance of the elections and attention to personalities and issues. National and state elections enjoy greater publicity and larger campaign budgets and staff and more volunteers than local elections. Not surprisingly, turnout in our neighboring communities (Dedham, Dover, Medfield, Needham, Norwood, Walpole) is similar to turnout in Westwood, running between 80% and 90% in national elections, between 56% and 68% in state-wide elections, and between 6% and 25% in town elections (Westwood: Presidential 2020=87.6%; State 2022=65.2%; Town 2022=23%). Factors reducing interest and participation in local elections are not specific to Westwood; low turnout in local elections is a common trend here and elsewhere.
Low turnout in local elections can be seen as an unfortunate fact of life…or as a challenge. There is no reason why Westwood could not become an innovator in local democracy and take pride in being the exception rather than part of an unfortunate pattern. Here are two ideas being tried in other communities for increasing civic participation and voter turnout in municipal elections.
Ranked Choice Voting
While the jury is still out on Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), a number of studies conclude that this voting method increases voter engagement and turnout in the electoral process.[ii] For example, turnout in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area increased 9.6% in mayoral elections with RCV, and turnout increased particularly in lower income precincts. Cambridge, perhaps the only town in the country with an extensive historical record with RCV, has used this method of voting for single-seat and multi-seat elections since 1941. Compared with three other MA towns with similar demographics between 1961 and 1991, Cambridge had the “least decline” in period of reduced voter registration and turnout in MA and nationally [iii]
Like MA as a whole, Westwood residents voted against RCV in a statewide referendum in 2020 (44.6% & vs. 55.4%)[iv], but RCV may deserve another look.
Massachusetts implemented online voting in November 2022 for persons of low vision, and the state plans to offer this option as well for MA military personnel and persons overseas in future elections. One question for Westwood is whether its low vision citizens and residents temporarily living or working overseas should have the same opportunity to participate in local elections that are afforded members of these populations in statewide elections.
Massachusetts uses the digital platform of Democracy Live, a Seattle firm, for online voting. The company says its technology has been deployed in over 4,000 elections in 2,500 jurisdictions and has been used in 29 states in the U.S.[v] In 2020, King County, WA, allowed all eligible registered voters to vote on a mobile device using the Democracy Live app in an election for the County Conservation District board of supervisors. Typically a low-turnout election, turnout was doubled when an online option was added. An independent audit by the National Cybersecurity Center identified no election interference. In that election, fewer online ballot signatures than mail-in ballot signatures were challenged.[vi]
The firm, Voatz, headquartered in Boston, also offers a platform for mobile online voting. Like Democracy Live, municipalities primarily use the Voatz technology for low vision and overseas populations. However, the town of West Lincoln in Ontario[vii] was one of fifteen towns in Canada using the platform for municipal and School Board elections in 2022. Nearly 45% of eligible residents voted online in that election in West Lincoln. Few conclusions can be drawn from a single election due to the competitiveness and visibility of races; nevertheless, the town reports that turnout increased from 38.46% to 43.55% compared to the most recent election.[viii]
Data security is naturally a prime concern with online voting. These companies draw upon a range of security protocols, such as in-person registration to be able to vote online, assignment of unique QR codes or PINS, two-factor authentication with self-assigned security codes, downloading and printing of ballots, data storage in a decentralized computer nodal network (blockchain), malware detection, and security audits. Although attacks are common during an election, neither company reports data breaches.
Is There a Will to Advance Democracy in Westwood?
Making democracy robust, especially locally, is admittedly challenging. One advantage is that there are many local communities interested in increasing local turnout and a considerable number of fresh approaches are being explored. The question is whether Westwood wants to be a leader in advancing local democratic participation. Above and beyond the few ideas discussed here, citizens undoubtedly have additional ideas to contribute and can envision other ways to strengthen local democracy.
[i] A desire to reduce the number of citizens required for a quorum in the annual Town Meeting also points to a need to strengthen local democracy. The Select Board is currently considering reducing the quorum from 175 to a much lower number, perhaps as low as 45 citizens, in order to ensure a quorum for this year’s meeting. This would mean the Town’s business would be authorized by a small portion of residents. https://westwoodminute.town.news/g/westwood-ma/n/152458/select-board-set-reduce-quorum-mays-town-meeting
[vii] With a population of 15,450 in 2021, West Lincoln is a community roughly similar in size to Westwood, although median income and percentage college-educated are higher here.
Thanks to John Aram, a retired professor of management policy, and a recent resident of Westwood, for contributing this opinion to Westwood Minute.
Westwood Minute takes no position on the opinion articles that it publishes, but seeks accurate and thoughtful commentary on topics that matter to our community, from a variety of differing viewpoints. Feel free to reply with your reaction below, or submit another perspective to WestwoodInAMinute@gmail.com.