Town Meeting voters checking in at a previous session. Concord Bridge file photo

Town Meeting organizers prepare for possibility of private paper ballot 

April 26, 2024

By Celeste Katz Marston — 

In Concord, Town Meeting is conducted in the open, with voters holding up brightly colored papers and literally standing to be counted. 


For the first time in more than a decade, a Town Meeting vote may potentially come to a private paper ballot next week. Moderator Carmin Reiss and her team are preparing for the possibility.

Town Moderator Carmin Reiss, center.
Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

“Every once in a while, there is something that comes up that people feel would benefit from a vote taken in privacy rather than publicly,” Reiss said. 

“It is cumbersome enough that you’ve got to have a really good reason to do it… People have to feel really strongly about it to go through this.”

There are several hot topics on the warrant for next week’s meeting, including a much-discussed item related to the naming of the new school. 

The School Committee voted in February, after soliciting public comment, for “Concord Middle School.”

But a groundswell of support remains for naming the building for Civil War-era racial justice advocate Ellen Garrison.

Article 22, sponsored by the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and presented by Co-Chair Joe Palumbo, moves that the town ask the School Committee to name the “publicly financed and owned” property for Garrison.

Ellen Garrison. Image via The Robbins House

She would be the first person of color in Concord history to have a public building named for her.

Putting it to paper

While Palumbo said he personally doesn’t plan to do so, “a number of voters have indicated that they would like to take the vote on Article 22 [by] paper ballot,” Reiss said.

“Because we are expecting a sizable turnout at Town Meeting, we have taken special care to review procedures and to be sure that everything is in place for a paper ballot involving a large number of voters.”

A motion to go to written ballots would need a second and the backing of a majority, Reiss said. 

Tellers would collect ballots directly from each voter and deliver them to a tabulation team. “The rest of us [will] move on to the next article [while] we wait to hear what the vote was on the paper ballot,” Reiss said. 

The last time Town Meeting went to a paper ballot was in 2013 on a citizen-sponsored article related to school administration. (The motion failed, 201-285. The process added around an hour to the meeting, Reiss said.) 

It wasn’t immediately clear when Article 22 will be considered. Town Meeting begins April 29 and continues April 30, with a Special Town Meeting on May 1.

Public vs. private

The desire for a paper ballot vote speaks to broader questions — including some on this year’s warrant — about how Town Meeting works. 

Among them, voters will be asked to consider whether Concord should join other communities in using handheld “clickers” to cast meeting votes. 

Concord Bridge file photo

Proponents say the hand-raising or “stand and be counted” model is too public to allow people to vote their consciences comfortably.

Those who prefer how Town Meeting has functioned for centuries say both open debate and open voting matter to the community’s deliberative process. 

“I’m sure that this kind of a circumstance will factor into people’s thinking about whether they would support us using [handheld] electronic voting at Town Meeting,” Reiss said of the paper ballot possibility.

“Obviously, if we were using electronic voting, you wouldn’t need to do this because every vote is, in essence, a secret ballot.”