Friday, April 5, 2013

North Attleboro Turnout Reflects on Government

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, April 5, 2013

By Bill Gouveia
            North Attleboro held an election this past Tuesday, but hardly anyone noticed.

            Town officials are bemoaning the fact only 9.6% of the more than 18,000 registered voters bothered to cast ballots this week.  They are talking about what they have to do to get people to vote.  On Tuesday night, Election Commission Chairman Kevin Poirier said “This is downright disgusting.  It’s the lowest we’ve had in quite a while.”

            He is right, it is disgusting.  But it is also largely the fault of the election commission, the selectmen, and other town officials who have continuously and consistently given voters more than enough reason to stay home during local elections. 

            North officials had the opportunity to do what several other area communities have done and move their local election to April 30th to coincide with the statewide senatorial contest.  They could have saved money, made it more convenient, and almost guaranteed a larger turnout – which is what they keep insisting they really want.

            But the commissioners recommended against it, citing aging voting machines, confusing ballots and the strain on election workers.  The selectmen agreed, and thus North’s voters will be called to the polls twice this month instead of just once.

            Selectmen placed a non-binding question on the ballot asking voters yet another variation of the same question they have been answering for over a decade – should the town change the form of government?  Of course, they asked it while providing absolutely no details, how much it would cost, how it would take place – minor things like that.

            If your town officials would rather make things easier for themselves than you, why should you bother to vote?  And if your government isn’t going to listen to what you say, why should you keep saying it? 

            The answer to both questions is – because it’s the right thing to do.  Regardless of how dysfunctional or self-serving their local government may be, North Attleboro voters have a responsibility to participate in selecting those who run it.  Giving up and staying home helps no one.  There simply is no valid excuse for the horrible turnout this past week.
            But when 85% or more of your voters stay away consistently over the course of a decade or so, you can’t just lay the blame on them.  The turnout problem reflects poorly on the town as a whole, and the town government in particular. 

            North Attleboro voters certainly turned out for the presidential election last year.  They have a history of making their votes count in state elections as well.  The problem is not that they are disinterested in politics and government, or don’t care about their taxes or services.

            The problem may well ben they just don’t think their votes on the local level really make any difference.

            Just a couple of months ago, I wrote the following regarding local elections:  “You might think town officials would be happy when the turnout is much higher.  My experience is that is not necessarily so, though most won’t admit it.  The feeling is often that the “regular voters” are being overrun by the folks who usually stay home during the local contest.  In a weird kind of reverse logic, that is often seen as undermining the local election.”

            I believe that is the case in North Attleboro, perhaps to an extreme.

            North Attleboro officials got the turnout they deserved, and probably wanted.  They continue to offer voters meaningless non-binding questions which produce meaningless non-binding answers and solve nothing.  They continue to refuse to centralize authority in a government that obviously needs just that.  They continue to appear more concerned about maintaining the status quo than giving the majority of voters what they want and need.

            When having a total of three contested races for over 100 RTM seats is considered an improvement, your governmental system has real problems.  North’s RTM attracts neither candidates nor voters in any great volume.

            Better advertising of the election is not the answer.  Voters are not stupid or oblivious, they just think participating in their local government is a waste of time.  And sadly – on many fronts – they keep being proven right.

            Hey North Attleboro officials – you want bigger turnouts?  Try giving your citizens a better government.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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