BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — Danvers should move its local elections to Saturdays and shorten the hours during which polls are open, Town Meeting member John Zavaglia says.
Saturday voting would make it more convenient to vote and boost turnout, which has been sagging in recent years, Zavaglia said. The move could even save money with the shortened hours, though some say those savings would be eaten up by overtime for Department of Public Works custodians and town clerk staff.
“It’s so much easier,” Zavaglia said of the idea of Saturday voting.
Zavaglia has submitted a citizen’s petition to change the day and times when residents vote, a measure that will be on the warrant for the upcoming annual Town Meeting.
Zavaglia proposes that town elections be on the first Saturday in May, rather than the first Tuesday in May. The petition would change voting hours from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the theory that eight hours is plenty of time to get to the polls. Parents shuttling kids to games on Saturdays could vote either before or after the kids play, he said.
“I bumped into an 84-year-old lady at Market Basket,” Zavaglia said, “and I told her what I wanted to do, and she said: ‘It’s a fine idea.’”
Earlier this month, selectmen Chairman Bill Clark said his board voted 4-0, with Selectman Mike Powers absent, to support the move, though there may be changes in wording as the article moves to the Finance Committee for its recommendation.
Some selectmen favor longer polling hours, Zavaglia said.
The move would not affect state and federal elections, which are held Tuesdays.
“It will help people get more access,” Clark said of the idea.
The cost to move the election to Saturday would be minimal, Clark said, though Town Clerk Joseph Collins said “there would be an increase in the cost” due to overtime. Town elections cost $5,500 apiece, a figure that does not include costs for DPW overtime. Poll workers hired to work elections are paid a flat fee per hour and are not paid overtime.
The bylaw governing town elections was last changed in 1973, Town Manager Wayne Marquis said. This change is relevant, Marquis said, because it superseded the state law that established representative Town Meeting in Danvers in 1930. That means the town does not have to go to the Legislature to make the change to Saturdays or to shorten the hours at the polls.
Zavaglia, who co-hosts a local cable TV show on town politics, says there are many advantages to voting on a Saturday, including the ability to keep schools open during elections. They are presently closed for a staff development day when elections are held.
A daylight election would save on electricity costs because it would require less lighting in buildings.
Zavaglia said Saturday voting also makes sense given how jammed people’s schedules are during the workweek. Tuesday elections are not drawing voters, he said. Elections in 2005 and 2008 attracted fewer than 1,000 voters, or 6 percent of those registered, he said.
Last year, about 2,050 voters, 10.8 percent, voted in an election that featured contested races for Board of Selectmen and School Committee, Zavaglia said. That works out to 32 voters an hour at each precinct if the election were shortened to eight hours.
Other towns in the area also hold Saturday town elections.
Tewksbury holds its election on the first Saturday of April, according to this town’s website.
Burlington held its election April 6.
Wenham used to hold its election on the first Saturday in May for four hours in the morning, right before Town Meeting. Last year, a citizen’s petition changed the election to Thursdays to coincide with Hamilton’s election cycle, as the two towns share a regional school district and a public library that require votes in both towns, said Wenham Town Clerk Trudy Reid. Polls are now open for 13 hours in Wenham. (Hamilton and Wenham’s town elections were both held on Thursday, April 11.)
Wilmington, a town about the size of Danvers, normally holds its election on Saturdays, but Wilmington Town Clerk Sharon George said that this year the town decided to combine its election with the special U.S. Senate primary on April 30.
Saturday town elections do not seem to make a difference in turnouts, George said. The town has had turnouts as low as 600 people, she said.
“If we do 2,000 voters on a Saturday election, then we feel like we have had a decent turnout out of 15,000 voters,” George said.
Danvers has close to 19,000 registered voters.
Plymouth’s population is twice that of Danvers (26,493 people), and it holds its town elections on Saturdays.
“We find there are people who don’t vote because it’s raining and others who don’t vote because the sun is out,” said Laurence Pizer, the town clerk in Plymouth.
Issues, not the day on which an election is held, drive people to the polls, Pizer said.
“I have yet to figure out if there is an obvious advantage,” Pizer said about Saturday voting.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.
Danvers town election turnouts Year No. of voters Turnout 2009 1,454 8 percent 2010 655 3.75 percent 2011 989 6 percent 2012 2,050 10.8 percent Source: Danvers Town Clerk's office