Keep Neighborhood Polling Places

14Jun12

Galvin Middle School - Wakefield, MALargely ignored in all the excitement over the margin of victory in the June 9 Special Election was the fact that the decision to build a new Galvin Middle School was made by a minority of the town’s voters. Less than one-third of those eligible weighed in with a vote. If you count only the “Yes” votes, barely a quarter of Wakefield’s registered voters pulled the lever for the $74 million building project.

As one local official observed, Wakefield is run by those who show up. Fair enough. But it’s still worth asking, why didn’t two-thirds of the eligible voters feel the need to show up?

It goes without saying that there will never be 100 percent participation in any election. But after all the signs, pamphlets, ads, letters, forums and articles, after all the earnest exhortations about the critical importance of the vote and the dire predictions if it failed to pass, and despite the financial impact on every household in town, two out of every three voters yawned and stayed home.

Wakefield High SchoolThe unusual decision to hold the election on a Saturday with everyone voting at the Wakefield High School Field House rather than at their normal neighborhood precinct polling places was supposed to make it easier to vote. The move was criticized beforehand by those opposed to the debt exclusion and hailed by the victors afterwards. Still, even after months of hype and the well-publicized availability of absentee ballots, only about 32 percent of the electorate bothered to vote.

The Galvinize Wakefield group was successful because it was well-organized, well-funded and motivated. They raised thousands of dollars for signs, ads and bumper stickers. They marshaled a force of more than 1330 people to Town Meeting to vote to send the Galvin project to the June 9 ballot. It would have taken a brave soul to dare stand up at that Town Meeting and speak against the project, much less raise a hand to vote against it. In the end, only seven did.

In 2008, another packed Annual Town Meeting passed a School Department budget that was $2 million more than the town could afford. At a subsequent Special Election that rejected that year’s outsized School Department budget, about 4,000 voters turned out.

There was no six-month campaign, there were no “forums,” there was no $9,000 campaign budget and the 2008 Special Election was held on a Tuesday in the neighborhood polling places.

And yet the 2008 Special Election drew only about 1,500 fewer voters overall than the incredibly hyped recent Galvin election.

Now, in the giddy wake of the Galvin vote, there is talk of holding all future elections at the High School Field House as a cost-saving measure.

Crystal Community  Club - Wakefield, MABut it would be a shame to take one more element of democracy out of the local neighborhoods. How many voters, senior citizens and others, walk to vote at their neighborhood polling places like the Crystal Community Club, the Most Blessed Sacrament Church and the West Side Social Club?

Even for those who drive to the polls, the High School Field House isn’t exactly a convenient central location. There are residents of Saugus who live closer to the Field House than most residents of Wakefield.

How many times over the last six months did we hear that a $188 annual tax increase to pay for the new Galvin would be “insignificant” to most Wakefield taxpayers?

Let’s not sacrifice the ability of local citizens to vote in their own neighborhoods for the sake of saving far less money than that.

[This column originally appeared in the June 14, 2012 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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