The small town of Upton won this year’s title of “Best Voting Community” in a biennial contest conceived eight years ago by former state senator Louis Bertonazzi as a friendly competition to try to spur voter participation.
The competition among the 19 south-central Massachusetts communities that were represented by the Milford Democrat on Beacon Hill offers a prize of $1,000, a banner, and a plaque to the town with the highest percentage of votes cast during a two-year period in local elections, primaries, and state and national contests.
It also bestows friendly “bragging rights,” Bertonazzi said, which he hopes can become a source of civic pride to get residents into the voting booths.
“It may just add another reason to get people out,” he said. “It shows people’s pride in their government, in their form of government, and in themselves and the role they play in their government.”
This year Upton edged out Westborough and last year’s winner, Mendon, with a participation rate of 29.9 percent.
That seemingly unimpressive average reflects the low of 6 percent turnout of registered voters for the 2010 state primary, and the high of 82 percent turnout for November’s presidential election, according to Denise Smith, assistant to Kelly A. McElreath, Upton’s town clerk.
Turnout at two town elections during that period was 22 and 21 percent, and was 17 percent for the presidential primary last March, Smith said.
The average turnout in Westborough for all the elections during the same period was 29.43 percent, and in Mendon it was 29.26, according to figures provided by the Louis Bertonazzi Foundation.
When Bertonazzi retired from the Massachusetts Senate as majority leader in 1996, he used the money left in his campaign account to start the nonprofit foundation and promote three things important to him: citizenship, culture, and education.
The citizenship award, he said, grew from his competitive streak.
“I love competition,” he said. “So we thought this could be another thing, like football and sports rivalries, that could spur a little fun competition.”
And “slowly, very slowly,” Bertonazzi said, people are catching on to the idea.
Along with a huge banner for prominent display, a $1,000 check is given to the town clerk and voter registrars in the winning community to be used toward improving turnout.
In Upton, according to Smith, McElreath often sends birthday cards to high school students when they turn 18, reminding them of their new right to vote.
The contest’s plaque, much like the NHL’s Stanley Cup, is engraved with the name of each new winner, and is kept by the victorious community until the next award ceremony.
“All we really hope is that it will get people thinking, maybe different business groups and such can use the contest to motivate people to go out and vote to promote their town,” Bertonazzi said.
“Voting is so important because it’s not just a responsibility of our form of government, but it’s an indication that we understand what has been sacrificed . . . by so many people to give us that freedom and right to vote,” he said.
The 19 area communities competing for the award are Auburn, Bellingham, Blackstone, Charlton, Douglas, Dudley, Grafton, Hopedale, Mendon, Milford, Millville, Northbridge, Oxford, Southbridge, Sutton, Upton, Uxbridge, Webster, and Westborough.
Along with the citizenship award, the foundation also promotes public education by awarding an outstanding teacher in the Milford school system a check for $1,000.
Bertonazzi said teachers are nominated by the community, and the winner is selected by an independent committee appointed by the board of directors of the foundation.
Bertonazzi’s daughter teaches Italian at Milford High School, and the 79-year-old former legislator is quick to point out that she is not eligible for the award.
He said the award recipient is kept secret until the presentation at a luncheon for teachers on the day before classes resume each fall.
In addition, Bertonazzi said, the foundation provides a cultural award each year to an outstanding student studying Italian at Milford High School.
The student, chosen by a panel consisting of the district’s superintendent, the high school’s principal, a guidance counselor, and foreign language department head, is awarded a chance to study Italian for a month in Italy, earning college credits at a program sponsored by Fitchburg State University.
The student’s travel, tuition, and room and board are paid for by the foundation with support from the Milford Sons of Italy and the Italian American War Veterans Post 40 in Milford, according to Bertonazzi.