Randal Fippinger and Jane Patton look at voting 'clickers' during Monday's meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday moved forward with a plan to have this May's annual town meeting try out an electronic vote-gathering device.
The meeting began with a presentation from Peter Babel of Meridia Interactive Solutions, who explained how the company's interactive "clickers" could be used to expedite the voting process at town meeting.
The five members of the board got to hold sample clickers, and Babel and Town Clerk Nicole Pedercini discussed how Williamstown could follow the path set by towns like nearby Lanesborough and implement electronic voting.
Chair Hugh Daley provided some anecdotal evidence of the system's success in the nearby town, arguing that the devices can provide a level of anonymity for would-be voters.
"I caught up with a buddy in Lanesborough," Daley said. "He said that, initially, he was like, 'Why are we worried about people feeling intimidated?' Then, after they adopted them, he found this system allows more people to attend. People feel more comfortable attending. They feel like they can vote without … Let's say you're a local dentist, and you don't want to vote a certain way [in a standing vote] because people might not want to use them for a dentist.
"I was surprised he was so energetically supportive of it."
Anonymity is an option for the Meridia voting systems, Babel explained. The town could choose to identify individual meeting attendees and how they voted or not.
While the current town meeting format creates no such record of individual votes, some residents have expressed concern that their friends and neighbors in the room can see how they vote on questions before town meeting, creating the possibility that peer pressure could prevent an individual from voting based on their true belief.
The flip side is that some have argued having to stand and be counted (or raise a voting card) creates a level of accountability to the town meeting process that anonymity would diminish.
Babel told the board that the technology is neutral on the question. The system can be operated either by attaching the clickers to the names of the people who check into the meeting and receive the devices or not.
Select Board member Jeffrey Johnson suggested the question of whether Williamstown preferred anonymous electronic voting could be decided by a vote at May's meeting, where the Select Board intends to let attendees "try out" the devices and decide whether the town should purchase them.
Babel confirmed for the board on Monday that his company does allow municipalities to rent the clickers for an initial use at a meeting, and it would apply the rental cost to an eventual purchase if the town ultimately decides to move forward with the voting system on a permanent basis.
The Select Board already is planning a warrant article for May's meeting to approve the purchase of up to 1,000 clickers and the software to run them after meeting attendees have a chance to try them for themselves. Andrew Hogeland suggested that a followup warrant article could ask whether residents want said clickers to be anonymous at future meetings.
Randal Fippinger said he had heard concerns from constituents about being able to change their vote if, for example, they click the button for "yes" when they meant to vote "no." Babel explained that the Meridia system allows respondents to change their vote at any time until the moderator announces a close to the voting window; "Only the last vote counts," he said.
Babel showed the Select Board how the voting system can generate a live screen that highlights when each of the meeting attendees has cast a vote. That screen could be projected on the wall of a gymnasium or other meeting space, allowing an attendee to see and confirm that the system has received their vote. Each participant could be identified by a number or — in the non-anonymous meeting — by name.
Babel pointed out that while voting is open, an activated device would be indicated on screen as a shaded box only, without indication of whether the vote was "yes" or "no," thus reducing the risk of a "herd mentality" driving individuals' decisions during the voting period.
As for security concerns, Babel's company notes on its website that the system, which is not web-based, is secure.
"These systems use a dedicated, proprietary communications protocol called Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) technology to avoid wireless interference, similar to what is used by your household internet router," the website reads.
Babel told the Select Board that the voting devices work better in a room where the signals can bounce off walls but have been used in outdoor settings, like the town was forced to use in 2020 and 2021 for annual town meeting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, the Select Board has decided for a second straight year to hold the annual town meeting at Mount Greylock Regional School. But on Monday it discussed using the middle-high school's auditorium instead of its gymnasium.
Fippinger has suggested in the past that the town consider using Williams College's '62 Center for Theatre and Dance for the meeting, arguing that the college's theater comes with seats and a sound system, eliminating some of the set-up cost associated with holding a meeting in the gym at Mount Greylock or Williamstown Elementary School.
Some of Fippinger's colleagues were cool to the idea of holding the annual town meeting in a non-municipal space, while acknowledging that for two years, during the pandemic, the town utilized Williams' Weston Field for outdoor meetings as a last resort.
The auditorium at Mount Greylock has a seating capacity of 445 with, Jane Patton pointed out Monday, the potential to use its adjacent cafeteria space for overflow.
No final decision was reached on Monday about whether to use the gym or the auditorium for the May 16 meeting.
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