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Thread: When 2/3 isn't

  1. #1
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    Default When 2/3 isn't

    Here's my take on last evening's Special Town Meeting and the Town Center article (Article 3).

    • A standing counted vote conducted using the dual-teller system confirmed a 553-271 margin (I think those numbers are correct--please let me know if they aren't), which at 67.11% just barely exceeding the 2/3 margin required for approval.

    • While there was no reason that I saw to doubt the count (given the dual-teller system and the likelyhood that a recount would have been no more precise than the original count), the rules allow a recount to be taken if 7 voters so request. They did.

    • Typically, the recount request has been deployed when the Moderator has made a discretionary decision about a voice vote: did the spoken "yeas" outweigh the spoken "nays" or not. While recounts may be legal following a standing counted vote, that does not necessarily make them appropriate unless their is clear evidence of a miscount.

    • In the meantime, and probably before the tellers even began to count the "no" votes, many "yes" voters had departed. More followed before the recount request was made. Town Meeting veterans may have known that such a departure should not have taken place until after the article was disposed, but it is understandable that more novice attendees would not have been aware of this subtlety.

    • Perhaps some of those requesting the recount thought that there was a reason to suspect that the original count was improperly conducted. Or, perhaps they saw the exodus and realized that the 2/3 majority no longer held. Truth serum would probably be the only way to know with reasonable certainty which it was.

    In my 15 years attending Town Meeting, this is the first time that I can recall the deployment of a Parliamentary maneuver to circumvent what appeared to have been a properly conducted vote. To be sure, reconsideration has been used in the past, but the rules of reconsideration make trickery difficult (and have since been tightened further), and in any event give more warning and a fair chance for both sides. In fact, one casualty of the new reconsideration rules is that "improper" recounts become harder to correct.

    In the end, I think that the Moderator did the right thing given difficult circumstances. Common sense says that you don't interrupt a count to adjourn or even table a motion. I hope that for future Town Meetings, the Moderator will clarify the precedence of motions in this area. Moreover, I hope that future proponents of Town Meeting articles drill home to their supporters the importance of staying until the gavel strikes.

    Having fully entered the arena of using the rules to circumvent a result, I would lose no sleep if the Town Center proponents again got their vote out (having done so once) to support reconsideration and passage. And should reconsideration fail, I would have no objection to residents calling another Special Town Meeting to right what I think was a wrong outcome last night.
    Last edited by Jeff Dieffenbach; 11-19-2009 at 12:09 PM. Reason: Changed yes vote from 555 to 553

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    Having fully entered the arena of using the rules to circumvent a result, I would lose no sleep if the Town Center proponents again got their vote out (having done so once) to support reconsideration and passage. And should reconsideration fail, I would have no objection to residents calling another Special Town Meeting to right what I think was a wrong outcome last night.
    A truly sad possibility in all this is that, as you suggest, a second STM could be the result of last night's voting. Just think of the additional time and money that would be expended.

    I agree that proper procedure probably was followed last night (and I sure would not have wanted to stand in Peter's shoes!), but I can't help but think that there was another, better procedure, that could have prevented the way events unfolded.

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    Just so everyone is on the same page, the applicable statute is Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 39, Section 15, which states in relevant part that "The moderator shall preside and regulate the proceedings, decide all questions of order, and make public declarations of all votes...If a vote so declared is immediately questioned by seven or more voters, he shall verify it by polling the voters or by dividing the meeting unless the town has by a previous order or by-law provided another method." I know it might sound picky, but it's not a recount. It's a new polling of the voters. You can't do a recount at a town meeting without ballots. A recount is a re-count of the votes that were already cast. This type of repolling not only gives people an opportunity to leave, but it also gives people an opportunity to vote even if they didn't vote the first time around, or to even change their vote. I don't know what "dividing the meeting" means --- I've never heard that term before. The Moderator is required to follow this statute, and I think that, under the circumstances, he did the only thing that he could do. The problem is that it can be argued that the voters were disenfranchised. However, if you leave before the meeting is over, you do so at your own peril. That's always been the case and it always will be, since, as anyone who has regularly attended town meeting knows, parliamentary procedure can be both tricky and complicated at times, and there are a number of procedures that people can use to their advantage, depending on the circumstances. The statute gives the town the right to pass a by-law to establish a different method of dealing with the questioning of vote counts. Perhaps that should be looked into.
    Last edited by Lawrie Glick; 11-19-2009 at 02:26 PM. Reason: added the word "regularly"

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    Lawrie, I like your distinction between "recount" (applied to physical ballots that presumably are not changing in number or content) and "repoll" (applied to people whose votes may change for the reasons you cite.

    Of course, that just let's us talk about what happened last evening with more precision. It doesn't get us to a better outcome.

    I'm curious to know if there's any support for the idea that only 1 "repoll" is allowed.

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    I think that it is compelling that what happened last night with the vote was unacceptable. And, it shouldn't matter which side you're on --- votes of that degree of importance (or, really, any vote at all at a town meeting) should not ideally be decided on a parliamentary maneuver. On the other hand, it strikes me as important that people have a reasonable opportunity to "question" the accuracy of a vote count, when the vote is close (whether or not a vote is "close" could be defined). The problem that I had with the meeting last night was how cumbersome and time consuming the vote counts were, and how they actually seemed to dominate the meeting. It would be interesting (and perhaps surprising) to have a breakdown showing what percentage of the meeting last night was devoted to vote counting. It was particularly annoying to me that it probably took around 45 minutes to count the votes on whether to terminate debate for Article 3 (it actually felt to me more like 3 hours). Wouldn't it have been much more productive to spend that 45 minutes listening to our fellow citizens state their opinions on the motion? I know that it gets late, and people start to get tired, and sometimes people don't like to listen to the opinions of people they don't agree with, but isn't the debate part supposed to be one of the major components of town meeting? I don't think that it was anyone's fault --- we just do not happen to have an efficient way to count votes when there are 1,500 people in a venue of that size and with the seating in that configuration. Perhaps one of the answers is to try to figure out a better way to count the votes --- perhaps electronically. Maybe if the vote only took a few minutes, people would be much less likely to leave.

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    You'd think that with more pairs of tellers, we'd be able to conduct the counts as quickly as in the past. Yes, the reporting would take a bit more time, but only a bit more.

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    Default Improving voting efficiency

    I looked into that term "dividing the meeting". You send everybody in favor to one side of the room, and everybody opposed to the other. Then you count the groups. That seems potentially much more efficient, and you can have the aye and nay votes be counted simultaneously. I bet you could get people to stand in groups of 10 and make this process even faster!

    As for electronic voting, it's coming... but I don't expect it to be too soon. The technology is here, but not cheap enough for large numbers of voters at Town Meeting. In the meantime, how about ballots? Couldn't we be given ballots, take them and run through one of two machines (or even clusters of 2 AYE and NAY machines to make it even faster) at the front of the room. Any recounts could then be done on the ballots instead of the people!
    Last edited by Kim Reichelt; 11-19-2009 at 03:23 PM. Reason: correction

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    I bet that both the yeas and nays would try to pass clusters of nine off as ten!

    Someone suggested last evening that towns purchase a single set of voting devices through one of the regional collaboratives. With a bit of planning, it might be possible to have as many as 10-20 towns share a set.

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    Default You still have to count the clusters

    OK, wiseguy, you still would have to check the clusters. Hey, this is out of the box thinking, don't knock it.

    Why can't we use our existing voting machines? They count pieces of paper fed through them, and that's all we need here, isn't it?

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    I wonder what the throughput of those machines is. I think that they have two at the MS on election day. Also two at the TB? We'd probably want to set up 2 for pro and 2 for con.

    The ballots themselves could just be different colored cards--there might not be the need to color in an oval. We might need a lot of colors, though, since you couldn't use the same colors for yes and no, nor for different votes.

    The Moderator Rules have some information about how secret balloting works at TM--presumably, the Town Clerk has a procedure for checking identity, handing out one and only one cards, etc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post

    A standing counted vote conducted using the dual-teller system confirmed a 553-271 margin (I think those numbers are correct--please let me know if they aren't), which at 67.11% just barely exceeding the 2/3 margin required for approval.
    Accepting your numbers, Jeff, there were a total of 824 voters. A 2/3 margin would require 550 votes. Thus the article was initially approved by a margin of 3 votes.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    While there was no reason that I saw to doubt the count (given the dual-teller system and the likelyhood that a recount would have been no more precise than the original count), the rules allow a recount to be taken if 7 voters so request. They did.
    A margin of 3 out of 824 certainly justified requesting a recount. Had those advocating the article been on the short end of this margin, they certainly would have demanded a recount.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    In the meantime, and probably before the tellers even began to count the "no" votes, many "yes" voters had departed. More followed before the recount request was made. Town Meeting veterans may have known that such a departure should not have taken place until after the article was disposed, but it is understandable that more novice attendees would not have been aware of this subtlety.
    Novice attendees could have read the Warrant, where the recount rule is clearly described.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    Perhaps some of those requesting the recount thought that there was a reason to suspect that the original count was improperly conducted. Or, perhaps they saw the exodus and realized that the 2/3 majority no longer held. Truth serum would probably be the only way to know with reasonable certainty which it was.
    I requested the recount because the vote was extremely tight -- certainly within the margin for counting error.

    There was no way for anyone to know whether those leaving were more proponents or opponents.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    In my 15 years attending Town Meeting, this is the first time that I can recall the deployment of a Parliamentary maneuver to circumvent what appeared to have been a properly conducted vote.
    To be sure, reconsideration has been used in the past, but the rules of reconsideration make trickery difficult (and have since been tightened further), and in any event give more warning and a fair chance for both sides. In fact, one casualty of the new reconsideration rules is that "improper" recounts become harder to correct.
    What occurred last night was a re-count, not reconsideration. Reconsideration requires substantial new information on the article that was not available at the time of the vote. The proponents will take a swing at this tonight.

    All day, I have been seeing email from Town Center advocates demonizing those opposing the Town Center article, characterizing last night as a "theft of democracy", the work of a "cunning minority". We simply requested a recount on a close vote. There are some twisted people in this town.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lawrie Glick View Post
    I think that it is compelling that what happened last night with the vote was unacceptable. And, it shouldn't matter which side you're on --- votes of that degree of importance (or, really, any vote at all at a town meeting) should not ideally be decided on a parliamentary maneuver. On the other hand, it strikes me as important that people have a reasonable opportunity to "question" the accuracy of a vote count, when the vote is close (whether or not a vote is "close" could be defined). The problem that I had with the meeting last night was how cumbersome and time consuming the vote counts were, and how they actually seemed to dominate the meeting. It would be interesting (and perhaps surprising) to have a breakdown showing what percentage of the meeting last night was devoted to vote counting. It was particularly annoying to me that it probably took around 45 minutes to count the votes on whether to terminate debate for Article 3 (it actually felt to me more like 3 hours). Wouldn't it have been much more productive to spend that 45 minutes listening to our fellow citizens state their opinions on the motion? I know that it gets late, and people start to get tired, and sometimes people don't like to listen to the opinions of people they don't agree with, but isn't the debate part supposed to be one of the major components of town meeting? I don't think that it was anyone's fault --- we just do not happen to have an efficient way to count votes when there are 1,500 people in a venue of that size and with the seating in that configuration. Perhaps one of the answers is to try to figure out a better way to count the votes --- perhaps electronically. Maybe if the vote only took a few minutes, people would be much less likely to leave.
    As pointed out in a previous post, the vote was extremely close; the article initially passed by a margin of 3 votes out of 824. Requesting a re-count involved no trickery or deceit. If people left before the voting process was completed, they have only themselves to blame.

    Cutting off debate by prematurely calling the question was in my opinion the meeting's low point. I was looking forward to hearing from both proponents and opponents. Interestingly, the person who made the motion to call the question was later seen screaming "you hijacked democracy" at people he knew to be opponents.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Bernstein View Post
    A margin of 3 out of 824 certainly justified requesting a recount. Had those advocating the article been on the short end of this margin, they certainly would have demanded a recount.
    I'm not so sure. I don't recall the year, but one of the school votes that wasn't approved failed by only a handful of votes. I don't think that a recount ("repoll," to be more precise) was requested, but my memory may be failing me.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Bernstein View Post
    I requested the recount because the vote was extremely tight -- certainly within the margin for counting error.
    No way to know, of course, but the dual teller method does help to suppress counting error. I have no way of knowing what the margin of error is in this type of human-counted voters situation--it might well be fewer than three votes.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Bernstein View Post
    There was no way for anyone to know whether those leaving were more proponents or opponents.
    I would think that the difference in the two vote counts--from 553-271 to 297-216--suggests that on the order of 250 "yes" votes didn't vote the second time around, compared with a bit more than 50 "no" votes. That seems to point to more of the former departing early.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Bernstein View Post
    All day, I have been seeing email from Town Center advocates demonizing those opposing the Town Center article, characterizing last night as a "theft of democracy", the work of a "cunning minority". We simply requested a recount on a close vote. There are some twisted people in this town.
    I've demonized no one on this issue.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    I'm not so sure. I don't recall the year, but one of the school votes that wasn't approved failed by only a handful of votes. I don't think that a recount ("repoll," to be more precise) was requested, but my memory may be failing me.
    How is this relevant to my speculation that Town Center advocates would have requested a re-count had they lost by 3 votes?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    I would think that the difference in the two vote counts--from 553-271 to 297-216--suggests that on the order of 250 "yes" votes didn't vote the second time around, compared with a bit more than 50 "no" votes. That seems to point to more of the former departing early.
    Yes, after the re-count, it was clear that more advocates than opponents had checked out early. My point is that one could not reliably determine this beforehand; proponents weren't exclusively wearing green tee-shirts, and opponents red tee-shirts. The closeness of the vote was the only factor.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    I've demonized no one on this issue.
    No argument; no one accused you of demonizing anyone, either.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Bernstein View Post
    There was no way for anyone to know whether those leaving were more proponents or opponents.
    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    I would think that the difference in the two vote counts--from 553-271 to 297-216--suggests that on the order of 250 "yes" votes didn't vote the second time around, compared with a bit more than 50 "no" votes. That seems to point to more of the former departing early.
    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Bernstein View Post
    Yes, after the re-count, it was clear that more advocates than opponents had checked out early. My point is that one could not reliably determine this beforehand; proponents weren't exclusively wearing green tee-shirts, and opponents red tee-shirts. The closeness of the vote was the only factor.
    Actually, it was pretty obvious that it mostly proponents who left early, but it was an artifact of the sequence of the vote. Since the votes in favor were counted first, these were the people most likely to leave as they had more time to hang around for what they thought was no apparent reason.

    No one is to blame for the sequence of the counting, it's just the way it went. But it did influence the outcome.

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