Friday, May 24, 2013

Mansfield Election Turnout Raises Questions

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on May 24, 2013
By Bill Gouveia


            The recipe for holding an election is simple:  Take one large portion of registered voters, throw in some candidates opposing each other, sprinkle with an issue or two, mix together vigorously, simmer over medium heat for at least 30 days, then serve.


            But even the simplest recipe doesn’t work if you leave out one or two of the key ingredients.  This was most obvious recently in Mansfield, where those trying to serve the local election up to the people were handicapped by a shortage of two vital ingredients:  Candidates and voters.


            We have seen some pathetic and lamentable election turnouts in this local area recently.  North Attleboro’s 2013 town election saw less than 10 percent trek to the polls.  Norton, Rehoboth and Seekonk had somewhat similar experiences.  To term recent local voter turnout “poor” in the Sun Chronicle area would be (with the notable exception of Foxboro) a gross understatement.


            But in Mansfield, a totally underwhelming 335 people out of over 13,000 registered voters actually cast ballots.  That’s about 2.25 percent.  More people than that attended the Annual Town Meeting.  More people than that attend junior varsity sporting events in that town.  Heck, more people than that stop to look at accident scenes on the highway.  That’s not a turnout, it’s an expression of complete and utter disdain.


            But can you blame them?  Mansfield had absolutely no contested races to decide.  Not for selectman, not for school committee, not for any town board, committee or position.  Every single candidate ran unopposed.  Except for writing in a name, voters had no choice whatsoever beyond taking a pass and staying home.  So that’s exactly what they did.


            What does that say about Mansfield in general?  Is it indicative of a problem, or a sign of general satisfaction?  Are voters lazy, apathetic, or simply satisfied with what they have and see no reason to even consider any changes?


            It’s a pretty safe bet most town officials would have you believe the latter.  Some may very well look upon the low voter turnout and lack of challengers for elected positions as a positive comment on their performance.  And there may be some validity to that point of view.  Perhaps people just feel totally comfortable with government as it is.


            But a two percent voter turnout?  Seriously, nobody is that good.  Two percent is what you get when there is something wrong, not what you get when voters simply don’t have interesting choices.  Two percent is a statement made via silence.  The question is – what are voters actually saying by saying nothing?  Yes, that’s a terrible sentence, but I don’t know how else to phrase it.


            Things have been running pretty smoothly in Mansfield.  The selectmen seem to be working together well, the town manager has provided strong leadership, and relations with the school department have greatly improved.  Yet there are still many issues the town must address in the immediate future, and quite a few will involve making difficult decisions.  It’s not all sweetness and roses.


            History tells us that these things are cyclical to some extent.  Interest in local affairs ebbs and flows, usually in accordance with the level of controversy facing the electorate.  Put an override on the ballot, and turnout will increase dramatically.  Cut sports from the high school budget and the turnout will surge.  Heck, just have enough candidates to create a contest and you’ll get much better than two percent.


            And why aren’t there more contested races?  Well, there are many theories.  My own belief is that it just isn’t as easy to serve your town as it used to be.  You seldom get credit when things go right, and always get blamed when they go wrong.  Budgets are in the many tens of millions these days, and it is no fun making cuts in services people truly care about.  Selectmen rightfully defer often to the town manager, and school committees are really just powerless figureheads since Prop 2-1/2 became law.


            But no races at all. and only two percent turnout?  The only thing that is a recipe for is disaster.


Something smells funny in Mansfield, and it’s not the sewer plant.  Voters and officials were smart enough to build that in Norton.


Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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