The Presidential Election in Seekonk was the best voting experience many residents say they ever had. From parking my car in the high school lot to entering the gymnasium and being checked off on the precinct voter list to marking my ballot, checking out and putting my ballot into the ballot box and returning to my car, it took less than 15 minutes. I also filled out a survey for the Seekonk Public Library during that time. This speed in voting occurred despite the fact that Seekonk now has only one polling place for all four precincts and 7340 people cast ballots. Town Clerk Jan Parker and her assistant Karen McHugh deserve accolades for the excellent job they did. Working with the Public Works Department, the Schools Building Manager and the Seekonk Police Department, they choreographed and orchestrated a nearly flawless operation.
What was not necessarily apparent was the fact that Selectman Gary Sagar, who challenged the idea of a single polling place, was part of the reason for this success. He and others expressed concerns about parking, long lines and convenience for the elderly, and advocated for a minimum of two polling places. These concerns were addressed when the Town Clerk made use of all 61 available voting booths, made extra arrangements for the disabled and had the police direct traffic. The one-way flow of voters through the gym meant that people arriving to vote were not hindered by those exiting after voting. The competition of ideas, seen originally as a clash of ideas -- one of which would prevail and the other lose -- generated the best possible outcome.
Fifteen years ago, I heard Sam Radford, a nonviolence trainer from Buffalo, New York, speak to inner city youth in Providence about the constructive value of conflict. Sam became a convert to nonviolence after nearly dying from a gunshot wound to the head. Conflict will always exist, he said. Looked at the right way, it betters us. The word "compete," he told them, comes from Latin and means to strive together. In athletic competition, the opponents spur each other to excellence. They become better athletes as a result of competition. Sure enough. I recently looked up the word "compete." The origin was given as Late Latin, meaning "seek together." The adjective "competent" was also listed. When we compete, we become more competent!
Finally, after 15 years, I understood experientially the concept Sam was describing. The competing ideas of one polling place versus two or more polling places meant that Mrs. Parker outdid her usual excellent performance by effectively addressing concerns that had be raised.
Would that we could always see the benefit of competing ideas rather than fearing or suppressing other points of views. Would also that we could stop viewing the competition between ideas as win-lose rather than win-win and share the credit and joy of a competition well executed. If we were to see the real value of competing ideas, we would actively seek out opposing viewpoints knowing that the process of competition produces better results.
Congratulations to Seekonk for a fine example of the value of competing ideas and a truly memorable voting day. The ease with which voters were able to clear up precinct problems without having to drive to another polling place, the management advantages for the Clerk's office of a single location, and the camaraderie created by bringing the entire community together at one site are all evidence of the wisdom of continuing with one polling place. It's time to move on to other issues.