| G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – Sending a postcard to every household in Springfield altering residents of an upcoming municipal election created a controversy last week, with Mayor Domenic Sarno vetoing the ordinance passed by the City Council.
Although some councilors questioned the ordinance, most of them voted for it after a discussion at the June 17 meeting.
Councilor Jesse Lederman, the author of the ordinance, said he would seek an over-ride of Sarno’s veto.
Lederman said that people frequently have questions about when is an election and where are the polling places. He added the cost of sending the postcards would be $13,000 an election and would only be used for municipal elections and not those involving federal or state candidates.
Along with the postcards there would be signs and robocalls to alert voters.
Councilor Kateri Walsh questioned the funding of the ordinance since the money is not in the mayor’s new budget. Councilor Tim Ryan noted that no other community is doing something like this and asserted there is no proof that a postcard could make “a significant impact.”
Ryan added, “It’s a great idea but I just don’t see it’s going to do what we want.”
Walsh wondered if the city could receive funding for the ordinance as a pilot program.
Councilor Michael Fenton suggested an amendment that would also include referendum votes.
Walsh and Ryan did not vote in favor of the ordinance.
Sarno vetoed the ordinance on June 18 and sent out a message with his action “Are we now talking about publicly financing campaigns – is that our next step? There are certainly a lot of unanswered questions. Is this now going to lead to other elections including special elections, referendum questions, and/or state elections too?”
“First of all, there is no simple answer to this age-old question. A committee needs to be formed, with media participation/involvement – extremely key. I’m always willing to work together with our City Council. I’d be okay with the ‘sandwich boards’ a week or so prior being put up to remind all voters – I believe we can do this within our Election Department’s budget. Mailings though – a lot of unanswered questions and ‘aren’t candidates supposed to do this?’ Also, I believe an effective tool would be something that retired Republican Newspaper Publisher David Starr championed some years ago when I was a City Councilor – ‘kids voting.’ This was a mock ballot program, which had an educational component that all our students would participate in. Key here is getting our students involved and integrated at a young age and with that the family/adults will usually follow along with their child’s lead and reminder to go to the polls – you address two issues at one time.”
Lederman replied, “Mayor Sarno’s Veto of this commonsense and straight forward proposal is surprising, especially considering that voter turnout in Springfield’s municipal elections has plummeted in the last 10 years, from 27 percent in 2007 to 9.9 percent in 2017.
“In our committee meetings with the Election Commissioner, it was indicated that one of the top questions the elections office receives is ‘when is the election,’ and ‘where do I vote.’ The city of Springfield has over 40 polling locations, some located in nondescript areas like apartment building community rooms.
“This common sense and straight forward proposal is meant to simply provide additional information and outreach to voters ahead of the election, including the date of the local election, the polling location of the voter, and the offices and/or ballot questions to be voted on. It would also provide information to contact the Election Commission, where voters could receive neutral information and have any technical questions they may have answered.
“The ordinance clearly stipulates that all language relative to the Notification would be neutral and non-partisan, and no candidates name would appear on the notification. It in no way amounts to public financing of campaigns, nor would it be used in federal and state elections, the responsibility of which falls to the state.
“The City of Springfield sends notices to residents for a wide variety of things, such as municipal meetings, because we value the public's input and understand the importance of the public being informed and involved in their local government. It makes sense, then, that we would notify them of the local election, an event that will undoubtedly have an impact on their lives.
“I welcome the Mayor’s suggestion around the forming of a robust Committee to consider further steps that can be taken to increase voter turnout in local elections, and I would also support efforts to integrate additional civics lessons back into our school’s curriculum, but we must start somewhere.
“While there is no one proposal that will shoot turnout from 9 percent to 100 percent, we can and should begin to take steps towards making more information about elections easily accessible to our constituents. Not only that, but we should be taking additional steps to identify other issues that lead to low voter turnout and addressing them, this proposal seeks to start that conversation – and seemingly has.
“While some may not see low voter turnout as a problem worth addressing, I would encourage folks to consider the broader implications of continually declining civic participation, especially with regard to accountability in local government, and ask, at what point will we take action?
“It is for these reasons that I will encourage my colleagues to support a veto override at our next regular meeting.”
With Sarno up for election this year, one of his opponents wasted no time in making his action an issue. Mayoral candidate Linda Matys O’Connell wrote on her Facebook page, “Springfield’s voter turnout is dead last in the Pioneer Valley, and our City Council has a cost-effective proposal to start fixing that – make sure voters know when elections are happening! Using a tiny fraction – one-thousandth of a cent – out of every dollar from MGM Springfield to encourage voting is a smart way to invest in our democracy. As a media executive I had to make tough spending choices all the time, but this one isn’t even close. A mayor whose new budget goes up more than $28 million vetoed this sensible proposal based on the $13,000 cost. I don’t buy it. I call on the City Council to override the Sarno veto.”