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Sheridan referendum, not perfect, was democracy

In 1785, it is said that Scottish poet Robert Burns unfortunately overturned a mouse’s nest while plowing his field. With winter approaching, he felt sympathy for the mouse and at the same time identified with the mouse’s situation, comparing it to what happens too often in the course of human life also.

In life, we can plan and work toward a goal till we are fairly sure we have done all we could to lead to a successful outcome. Doesn’t always work out that way, as the mouse demonstrated to Burns. A line in his poem “To a Mouse” says: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ gang aft agley.” In modern English vernacular, “the best laid plans of mice and men” has become a staple phrase to describe a situation where a worked-for outcome doesn’t happen as planned, where an unanticipated snag spoils the process.

“Best-laid plans” can be applied to projects large or small. Take the most recent election. Poll after poll predicted a “red wave.” That did not happen although the House did flip Republican by a few seats.

What happened to those polls that are supposed to be well-constructed, statistically reliable tests of voter opinions? Those polls didn’t include information from the deciding sector of the population, young voters, the generation whose main modes of communication have evolved to not include the conventional polling methods. The polls therefore did not reach and account for the large turnout of young voters who tend to lean left politically.

As encouraging as the results of the elections nationwide are, the path that the House of Representatives may take doesn’t look promising. That small margin is enough to allow for a spineless speaker to cater to the crazies.

What is the agenda that they have announced? They campaigned on crime and inflation.

Do they have plans to fix those problems? Nope.

Our country’s democratic experiment as a whole is a work in progress, each attempt to advance the democratic process is subject to trial and error, but the attempts are necessary. The step-by-step continuous pursuit of transparency and accountability to the people and the reliance on journalism to keep the people informed and involved — sometimes a success, sometimes a set-back — is necessary to prevent a slide to authoritarianism.

On a smaller scale — and small attempts are as important as the larger plans that are built upon them, disappointment in the result of “best laid plans” happened in the local Sheridan election. A proposition on the ballot intended to afford the voters of the town a voice in a matter that could have an important impact on residents was confounded by the chosen wording.

Since some voters expressed confusion about how to answer, the results were dismissed by the Town Board even though the 609-559 results were close, and a good turnout was possibly encouraged by the chance to have input on this issue. Since some voters may not have responded correctly as they intended, all the best-laid plans, including extensive research, door to door leg work, attempts to inform Sheridan residents in advance, were negated by a too-low confidence in the accuracy of the voters’ responses.

There are several reasons that the plans went awry. Regardless of the attempts of a local business, interested in an opportunity which could benefit both their business and the town through additional tax revenue, to convince the board to allow the possibility for them to pursue having a cannabis dispensary, the board decided at the last moment — during the Christmas holiday week of last year — to opt out of cannabis sales inside Sheridan. There was one recourse left; that was to petition the voters to require a referendum on the ballot of the next general election, and there was a deadline and a minimum number of signatures that had to be met. The petition had to be worded in a very particular way so as to comply with legal rules in order to be accepted.

The petition met the requirements, and it fell to the town to submit a referendum to the county Board of Elections, out of the hands from then on, of the petitioners. Signers of the petition had the opportunity to have the situation explained to them and the unfortunate wording was a result of copying the complicated heading of the petition, minus an explanation.

According to the board, they must print the proposition as submitted and have no say in how it appears. We now know that the wording did not have to duplicate the petition, live and learn. Ala Tucker Carlson, the question becomes: if the town was responsible for the wording, did they not suspect and anticipate at the time it was sent to the election commissioners, that it would confuse the voters? If they knew, could the problem have been avoided and not ended up as a reason to dismiss the vote? (a slight plagiarizing of the Tucker technique)

Also, it is a basic premise of human reasoning, that it is much easier to understand how to answer a positive question, than how to answer a negative question, there is an extra step involved, somewhat of a brainteaser. Since the decision had already been made in the negative, the question had to be, “do you agree with the board deciding against cannabis sales.” A positive response of “yes, I agree” then actually means “no, I don’t want cannabis sold in the town.” Simpler terms make it clearer. It did take some thought to figure out with the extra verbiage.

And generally, referendums appear on a ballot before decisions have been made, as a way for government to gauge the will of the people on something under consideration, like the statewide proposal which also appeared on the ballot. It asked for approval on the purchase of environmental bonds, an action not yet taken.

Since this opt-out decision was already made with apparent minimal input from town’s people, the referendum was an after-the-fact attempt to give them the opportunity for a say in the matter. Had it been a successful accurate reflection of the voters’ choice, and had it been in favor of allowing cannabis sales, the law that the board passed last December to opt out would have been overturned, otherwise, it would have reinforced their decision. In either case, democracy would have been served. The unfortunate outcome, the results just tossed out, was a disservice to Sheridan voters. If at first you don’t succeed …

The mouse didn’t anticipate the plow. The petitioners did not anticipate that the choice of wording placed on the ballot would be confusing. “The best laid plans” reference strikes again. Thanks to Burns and the mouse whose nest he ruined; we have another of many ways to express the unsuccessful attempts in life.

Susan Bigler is a Sheridan resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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