With voter turnouts in the low hundreds for the past two town elections, Canton is poised to become the first town in the state to move its spring elections to November.
Despite opposition from numerous officials, Town Meeting last week authorized selectmen to submit a home rule petition asking the Legislature to exempt Canton from a state law requiring town elections to be held in February, March, April, May, or June.
Local legislators said they expect the petition to pass, and the town’s first November election could take place as soon as 2016.
Since 1633, all Massachusetts towns have held their elections in the spring, said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the secretary of state.
McNiff said he didn’t know of any other town that has tried to move its election, but Massachusetts cities have their own charters and all hold local elections in November in odd-numbered years, he said.
Connecticut rescinded its law requiring spring elections, and the vast majority of cities and towns in the Nutmeg State hold their elections in November, said Bruce Rohr, a former Canton Conservation Commissioner who submitted the Town Meeting article.
According to Fred Bayles, director of the Boston University State House Program, spring Town Meetings and local spring elections are primarily a New England tradition.
While Bayles speculated that state law and a sense of tradition have been factors keeping town elections in the spring, a move to November might not be a much better option.
“Even in off-term (nonpresidential) elections, November participation is pretty low — close to dismal,” Bayles said of elections across the state.
In Canton, which has 14,430 registered voters, the idea of moving the town election followed turnouts of 233 in 2013, and 428 in 2014, when the only item on the ballot was an amendment to the Community Preservation Act. Neither election has contested races. Since 2000, turnout in elections with contested races ranged from 1,360 to 3,892, according to figures from the Town Clerk’s office.
Rohr characterized his proposal as a voters’ rights issue. “No one contests the fact that moving elections from April to November will increase voter turnout,” Rohr said at the April 12 Town Meeting. “In other words, no one contests the fact that keeping elections in April suppresses the vote.”
In a PowerPoint presentation, Rohr presented examples across the country of how timing affects voter turnout. One example was in Augusta, Ga., where last year a judge blocked a Republican proposal to move elections from November to July on the grounds that the change would harm minority voters, Rohr said.
A majority of Canton’s selectmen and Finance Committee members voted against the article on the sparsely populated Town Meeting floor, but the article passed 43-40.
Finance Committee chairman Mark Porter said moving Canton’s elections to November could increase voter turnout, but he doubted whether November voters would be as well informed as those who vote in the spring.
“We had 12,000 people come for the last [November] election,” Porter said. “I would bet you half of those 12,000 people don’t know we even have a Board of Selectmen.”
Rohr called Porter’s words “un-American” and said he was “deeply disturbed” by Porter’s questioning the quality of the vote.
Town Clerk Tracy Kenney opposed the article on the grounds that election workers were already pushed to the limits and that holding local and state elections on the same day would effectively double their work.
“If we can’t come up with coverage, the burden will fall on our current election workers,” Kenney said, adding that most poll workers are senior citizens.
Kenney estimated that costs would be roughly equivalent in terms of holding April or November elections.
Selectmen chairman Gerald Salvatori said he came to the meeting with an open mind but had not heard a persuasive argument for switching to November.
His biggest concern was the lack of candidates in the last two spring elections rather than lack of voters. “Thousands of people show up to vote when they have choices; when we have no contested races on the ballots, people aren’t going to show up,” Salvatori said.
Fellow selectmen Robert Burr and Avril Elkort said they saw the low turnout as a sign that voters have confidence that the town was well run.
“When people are not content, you know it real fast,” Elkort said. “The phone doesn’t stop ringing.”
The only selectman to endorse the proposal was Victor Del Vecchio, who said poll workers should be better paid and more should be sought.
“We’re not paying poll workers the state minimum wage,” Del Vecchio said. “I’m offended by that.”
After the vote, Rohr said Del Vecchio’s support helped sway the outcome. He also credited a favorable editorial in the Canton Citizen the week before Town Meeting.
The next step is for selectmen to submit a request to Canton’s state legislators to file the home rule petition, said Town Counsel Paul DeRensis. Salvatori said his board will do so, even though most of them voted against the article.
“I can’t imagine we wouldn’t carry out Town Meeting’s wishes,” Salvatori said shortly after the vote.
State Representative William Galvin, a Canton Democrat, said he and state Senator Brian A. Joyce, the Milton Democrat who represents Canton, need a certified copy of the Town Meeting vote before they can file petitions in their chambers.
Neither Galvin nor Joyce thought the petition would face much opposition in the Legislature because it affects only Canton. But Galvin expressed doubts as to how effective it would be.
“I think it is very well-intentioned and it is a good thought, but I don’t think it goes to the core of the problem of the lack of candidates to run,” Galvin said after the vote.
Joyce said he believed the first town election in November would coincide with the presidential election in 2016, though various factors could delay it until 2017.Dave Eistenstadter can be reached at email@example.com.