WOONSOCKET – Mayor Leo T. Fontaine may not have an opponent on next month’s election ballot but he does have a cause.
Fontaine says he’s doing everything he can to persuade voters to reject the proposed synchronization of municipal, state and federal elections. It’s one of four referendum questions that will appear on the ballot of the citywide election Nov. 8.
“I’m speaking out against it every chance I get,” says the mayor.
In an age of declining voter participation and shrinking news holes, putting municipal candidates on the same ballot as contenders for state and federal office will make it harder than ever for city residents to make informed choices about who runs local government, says Fontaine. “There’s so little opportunity for residents to get to know the candidates that mixing our races into the national and state elections will make it near impossible for local candidates to get their message out,” he says.
North Smithfield and a few other cities and towns used to have the same system, but Woonsocket now stands alone as the conservator of the biennial, odd-year election cycle, giving local candidates total ownership of the ballot, the secretary of state’s office says.
Central Falls has odd-year elections, but local candidates serve four-year terms, so the city holds half as many local elections than Woonsocket, tamping down costs — a key benefit touted by proponents of synchronization.
Another plus, many say, is that lumping all the candidates together will lift overall voter turnout, ending the days when local office-holders are often chosen by an abysmally tiny fraction of qualified electors.
Jamestown had the same system as Woonsocket for many years, but voted to phase it out in 2009. The town will have its last two school board seats on the odd-year cycle this November before the old system is forever banished, said Karen Montoya, the clerk for the town’s Board of Canvassers.
She says the phaseout was embraced after a study of voting patterns for the last 20 years showed that far fewer people turned out to vote in municipal elections than those in which state and federal candidates were on the ballot.
“Half as many people came out for a local election as a national election,” she said. “Plus, we were holding an election every year, and it’s expensive to run an election.”
Estelle Corriveau, manager of the Board of Canvassers in Woonsocket, stressed that she’s not taking a position on the issue, but she says putting state, local and federal elections on the same timeclock would save $45,000 to $50,000 every two years.
Though he has championed fiscal austerity in just about every other municipal venue imaginable, Fontaine maintains that traditional elections are one rail of city government where the negatives of streamlining the system outweigh the benefits.
But not everyone agrees. In a city facing some daunting fiscal challenges, Councilman Roger G. Jalette Sr. says the savings that would result from consolidating the ballot are nothing to sneeze at.
“A penny saved is a penny saved,” he says. “We have to save money wherever we can.”
Jalette says he’s heard the argument often raised by opponents of the switch – consolidating the ballot will leave voters dazed and confused. He doesn’t buy it.
“Some politicians think the general public is stupid, but I have more confidence in them than that,” he said. “If there’s a problem with voters it’s that they’ve grown too complacent.”
With high-profile statewide candidates on the ballot, Woonsocket is sure to see greater interest and participation in elections, Jalette maintains, but Fontaine argues the net effect of consolidating the ballot might be exactly the opposite. Besieged by information overload, voters may simply withhold their vote for candidates who fall under their radar, a trend he argues is already apparent in local voting patterns. The problem will only grow worse as the number of candidates on the ballot increases.
“Even though the turnout might be higher it won’t necessarily equate to more people voting for local candidates,” he says.
Council President John Ward understands the cost-saving appeal of the switch, and he wouldn’t criticize anyone for supporting the change on that basis. Still, Ward says he doesn’t feel strongly enough about tinkering with the election cycle to take a position on it either way.
“I’m on the side of allowing Woonsocket voters to make the decision,” he says.
Question 3 reads this way: “Shall the City of Woonsocket Home Rule Charter, Chapter XVIII, Section 2, be amended to set the election of the mayor, city council members, and school committee members, on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November in even-numbered years, with the following transition periods: the mayor, city council members and school committee members elected in the 2013 election shall serve a term in office until 2016.
In other words, if approved by voters, the local slate of officials elected in November 2013, for one time only, would serve terms of three years instead of two, smoothing them into the cycle of state and federal elections for the first time in 2016.