New Ways in Weymouth

WEYMOUTH – It is the nature of government to respond to the crisis of the moment, and last fall the crisis on the minds of town officials had to do with voting machines.

W hile many other towns and cities had updated their voting systems with modern, reliable tabulators, Weymouth was still using punch-card equipment that had been purchased 20 years ago. This would normally be a matter of little moment. Voters, after all, tend to get used to their method of voting and are suspicious of newfangled ways.

But the Weymouth way of voting became the subject of headlines around the state after the Sept. 17 state Democratic primary. Two candidates for Congress–Philip Johnston and William Delahunt–ended up in a race so close that a recount was required. The recount zeroed in on the unusually large number of ballots in Weymouth that had been counted as blanks. As the recounting proceeded into October, Mr. Johnston, who at first appeared to be the winner, campaigned for Congress–drawing First Lady Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats to his rallies. But by the time the Weymouth blanks were examined, the final tally was changed and the nomination was given to Mr. Delahunt, who went on to win the 10th Congressional seat in November.

A week after the general election, a town meeting convened in the Barnes Auditorium of the Abigail Adams Intermediate School, which is just behind Weymouth Town Hall on Middle Street. By request of the town clerk, Article 18 on the warrant proposed a sum of money be appropriated for a new electronic voting system. This was not the first time such a proposal came before the 260 elected representatives of the Weymouth Town Meeting. In the spring of 1995, and again in 1996, Town Clerk Franklin Fryer had requested updated equipment. Mr. Fryer even had a demonstration model of an “optical scanner” electronic system set up in the hall outside the auditorium last spring. But the price tag–more than $100,000–left town meeting members unmoved.

This time would be different. The weakness of the punch-card system was thoroughly publicized during the 10th District recount: If the voter was not careful in using the metal stylus, the ballot card might not be properly perforated, leaving hand-counters to guess the voter’s intent. If the card showed a slight indentation but not a complete puncture, had the voter not pressed hard enough? Or was it a last-second change of heart?

Mr. Fryer, who has been town clerk for 20 years, tried to convey to the town meeting something of the distress his office experienced during the recount. “It was very, very difficult,” he recalled. “Just picture in your mind sitting there with your partners trying to count all those holes,” he said, holding up a sample punch card. “We had the deputy Secretary of State sitting up in the Selectmen’s chamber…”

“Just picture in your mind sitting there trying to count all those holes”

“I’m telling you,” Mr. Fryer said, “I’ve been in this game for quite a few years–I never saw anything like it.”

There was a brief dissent when Ms. Maureen Hilton described the purchase of new equipment as “a want, not a need.” Noting the $117,200 cost of the new machines, Ms. Hilton said, “The passing of this article may serve the interests of some, but it does not serve the financial interests of Weymouth. Our ballot machines work properly when used properly.”

“The Secretary of State is calling these machines ‘antiques,'” Mr. Fryer responded.

One representative asked whether the old punch-card system would have resale value.

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“To Bosnia!” someone called out from the crowd.

Selectman Joseph Piper made a one-sentence speech: “I’m running for re-election and I don’t want a recount!”

And with that, the vote was taken shortly after 11 p.m. By a show of hands, money was appropriated for a new system, with 137 in favor and 9 opposed. Weymouth’s brief moment in the media glare had brought about a sudden, easy consensus.