Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In North Attleboro, Voters Take the Rap for Government

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Monday, April 7, 2014

By Bill Gouveia


            As I looked over the election results in North Attleboro last week, a thought suddenly struck me.  North Attleboro’s town government is a lot like my little brother when I was growing up.


            Nothing seems to ever be their fault.


            For the second year in a row voters virtually ignored the town election.  Only 10.85 percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots, on the heels of last year’s turnout of less than 10 percent.  For the second year in a row, Election Commission Chairman Kevin Poirier correctly referred to the turnout as “disgusting”.


            But there is little to indicate anything will change soon.  North officials have shown little interest in doing anything meaningful to attract more voters to local elections, other than insisting they are not to blame for the turnouts.  It’s almost like they really don’t want more voters casting ballots – and that might very well be the truth.


            Almost to a person, town officials refuse to place any blame for the poor turnout on the system of government.  They reject outright the argument voters simply don’t believe the current system is effective, thus making their votes relatively meaningless.  Instead they have a myriad of other excuses – er, I mean reasons – to explain the continued poor showing.


            The election wasn’t advertised well enough.  No one mentioned it on the town web site.  The weather has been bad.  People are too busy working.  The media doesn’t cover it as well as it should.  Voters have trust in the current system and don’t see the need to vote.  It is not just North, turnout is down in many other communities.


            But the idea that voters have simply lost confidence and feel betrayed by a government that consistently shuns them never seems to be touted by town officials. 


            How many embarrassing turnouts does it take for that to be publicly considered?  What will it take for town officials to finally admit that a system regularly ignored by 90 percent of town voters needs to be changed?


            Last April less than 10 percent turned out to vote for town officers.  Two months later in June, 40 percent voted in an override election.  Why the difference? Because in June, their vote actually mattered.


            There are 135 members in North Attleboro’s Representative Town Meeting.  Last Tuesday’s election featured two contested races for seven spots.  All the rest were either unopposed.  In about 19 instances no one at all even bothered to run for the position.  This system can’t even attract enough candidates to fill its legislative branch, never mind attracting voters.


            Yet this is the form of government most officials are determined to keep at all costs.  Again, why?  In my mind, the answer is simple.


            This is the government they can control.  This is the government picked by the small number of good citizens who take seriously their obligation to vote.  This is the government that got them elected. 


            Despite claims to the contrary, they don’t want more people to vote.  It makes the electorate more unpredictable.  That just makes it harder to get elected. 


            I have to laugh when I hear people say RTM is better than a mayor or a town council because it lets more people vote on local issues rather than concentrating power in the hands of a few. 


Yet that same RTM has consistently blocked people from casting binding ballot votes on changing the form of government.  Is more only better when it applies to them?  The hypocrisy is laughable.


There will be elections in other local towns with very low turnouts.  But most of them will have few if any contested races.  By contrast, the three contests in North Attleboro were spirited and interesting.  Yet voters still ignored them. 


Supporters of the current system point to low turnout in other communities as a defense of the status quo.  It reminds me of when I would point to bad behavior by others to explain my own, and my mom would say “If they all jumped off a cliff, would you?” 


North voters are not lazy, don’t need to be “educated”, and are not ill-informed.  They are just tired of being ignored and blamed for the consistent failure of a system they have said should be changed.


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

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