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January 20, 2014

20% rule hovers over election

BEVERLY — When Barnstable residents went to the polls in 2009 to vote on a controversial sewer project, 77 percent voted against it — and lost.

The defeat came about because fewer than 20 percent of the town’s registered voters turned out for the election, a standard that had to be reached to validate the vote in the citizens referendum.

“A lot of the people in town were disturbed by it,” recalled Barnstable resident John Julius, one of the ‘no’ advocates. “The gun was stuck to our head because we had to get the 20 percent.”

Opponents of the Brimbal Avenue rezoning will be facing an even higher obstacle in the Feb. 8 special election.

According to the Beverly City Charter, at least 20 percent of the city’s registered voters — or about 5,100 people — will have to vote ‘no’ to overturn the City Council’s decision to rezone.

If the turnout is only 20 percent, as it was in last September’s preliminary election, every voter would have to vote ‘no’ for the ‘no’ vote to prevail.

The 20 percent rule was set in 1995 when voters approved a new city charter. Charlie Grimes, who served as chairman of the Charter Commission, said commission members wanted to make sure that decisions by elected officials couldn’t be overturned by a small group of residents.

“You could have 500 people go to the polls out of an electorate of 25,000,” Grimes said. “We need to have a clear statement by enough of the population to know this is not some fluke.”

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office said he did not know how many communities have instituted minimum voter requirements for referendum questions, which seek to repeal a law.

Barnstable Town Clerk Ann Quirk said she thinks it’s more common to set a minimum turnout for referendum questions, rather than Beverly’s requirement of a minimum number of votes to overturn a measure.

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