Photo: Wear your shorts, it’s summer time voting in Belmont
In response to the continued COVID-19 pandemic, the Belmont Select Board approved moving the annual Town Election from April 7 to Tuesday, June 23 at its March 26 meeting held via video conference.
In addition to a new day for voters to head for a summertime election, Town Meeting members could be debating the 2021 budget sitting in front of their computers rather than in the Chenery Middle School auditorium as plans are underway to possibly hold a virtual annual Town Meeting in May if the novel coronavirus continues to force social distancing.
Saying “it seemed imprudent to proceed with an election for April 7,” Select Board Chair Tom Caputo complimented the state legislature for passing a bill allowing city and towns to postpone local elections until June 30.
Town Clerk Ellen Cushman and Town Moderator Micheal Widmer, who led the effort to establish a new election date, believed that “for the people who work the elections and the voters in general, the longer we can push that off, the better,” said Cushman. They also had to consider a date in which Belmont public schools had shut down for the summer recess as three of the town’s eight polling stations – at the Winn Brook, Burbank and Butler elementary schools – are located in district buildings.
In the end, the pair came up with three dates; June 16, 23 and 25 with the 23rd receiving the highest favorable response from volunteers who work the elections.
Yet a June date would come after the completion of the annual Town Meeting, which begins on May 27. Traditionally, a new Town Meeting is held after a Town Election to allow new representatives to debate and cast ballots.
But as the Select Board’s Adam Dash noted, there is also no requirement in the new town election legislation compelling towns to hold elections before Town Meeting – as is usually the case.
Cushman said that whoever is actually elected to serve as a Town Meeting member and in town-wide office would be the ones who represent at Town Meeting.
“So it’s possible that you might have [a] group who would represent at the annual town meeting … before the election, and then a completely different group would be at a Special Town Meeting that deals with those zoning articles and other items that took place after the election,” said Cushman.
“I certainly don’t want to set a date … in May, and then it turns out we’re still quarantined and then we have to pump it a second time, which would not be ideal,” said Dash.
Board Member Roy Epstein – whose background image suggested he was speaking from along the pre-1940 Maginot line in France – asked Cushman if the town could hold the election via absentee ballot to lessen the anxiety of voters concerning contacting COVID-19 at polling stations.
“I guess there’s some possibility that even in June, it wouldn’t be wise to have an election with live polling places,” he said.
Cushman noted that the state has recently altered its criteria for casting an absentee ballot to include voters who are avoiding a polling place as a precautionary measure in response to COVID-19. The state has also extended early voting to municipal elections for the remainder of 2020.
Yet there is one catch; under state law, the town must have at least one “live” polling station on election day to allow voting for anyone who didn’t vote early or with an absentee ballot.
“[I]f people do show up, then you might put them in jeopardy because suddenly you’d have a lot of people located in one location. So there are a lot of considerations,” said Cushman.
In addition to settling on a new election day, Cushman said Belmont and other towns are watching another piece of state legislation. They are hoping language will be added to allow towns to run “remote access Town Meetings” if necessitated by the continued presence of COVID-19 in late May.
Cushman said her office has been in discussions with Turning Technologies, the town’s electronic voting vendor, which indicated there needs to be coordination between its software and Zoom, the remote conferencing service, to make it work.
“But for Town Meeting members, the experience would be virtually seamless. Roll call votes would … be instantaneous, and it’s part of our existing license so it wouldn’t cost us anything,” said Cushman
“So I already have people taking training and webinars … so should [if enabling language] happens in the legislature, we will be pretty much ready to start turning on,” said Cushman.
Caputo said he had recently participated in a work meeting with 254 people, “and it actually worked remarkably well.”
And on the plus side of a Town Meeting via Zoom, suggested Dash, “if you go beyond the time limit [the Town Moderator] can just mute them.”