FREE SPEECH ZONE | How not to hold an election

Who is eligible to vote should be a public record and the voting process transparent. Remember the Voter ID amendment in our 2012 election? Now Minnesota’s Department of Transportation (MnDOT) asks only a few people to vote on whether these expensive noise walls should be put up along old freeways when new lanes are added in MnDOT-selected neighborhoods under their June, 2011 Noise Policy guidelines. The voting process is neither public nor transparent. What’s worse, in at least one affected neighborhood, MnDOT can’t even find the eligible voters nor explain how their weighted-vote process system works.

In this neighborhood near the University of Minnesota, 38 buildings contain eligible voters—including a motel and a church--according to MnDOT. Owners and residents of those properties can authorize $5 million taxpayer dollars for a few blocks of noise walls that a 10,000 person neighborhood doesn’t want? Even worse according to the new rules, a non-vote becomes a yes vote, a vote for constructing the expensive walls. On amendments to Minnesota’s state constitution a non-vote is a no vote.

A year or so ago Hennepin County and Minneapolis joined MnDOT in a project to provide access off 4th Street downtown to I-35W northbound. New lanes will be added to the freeway after it crosses the Mississippi. Around Thanksgiving, 2011 MnDOT’s consultant, who is responsible for the voting process, sent letters with a return postcard to what they called “benefitted receptors” of a potential noise wall. asking for “opinions” on whether such a wall should be constructed. Some of these letters were simply addressed Occupant. Opinions, it was discovered, were considered votes by MnDOT—or its consultant. Three neighborhood associations and many residents objected. The process was put on hold.

Now MnDOT is proposing a second round of voting. Official public records are kept on property owners, but where can an official list of residents be found? Not every resident is a registered voter; students move in and out and some property owners flaunt occupancy limitations. How then does MnDOT choose which residents can vote? And, according to the noise guidelines, votes are weighted in favor of owner-occupants. Where is that list found? In short, MnDOT has no way to develop a legal list of who can vote and how many votes anyone has.

MnDOTs Noise Wall policy guidelines also call for attention to whether a noise wall is feasible and reasonable. They define reasonableness as a “combination of social, economic and environmental factors.” Is it reasonable that 20 foot high walls that cut off light and sight lines for both motorists and residents is determined by a small minority of citizens? Say nothing of all the trees and other foliage that will be destroyed when such a wall is constructed.

Even more problematic is that the MnDOT consultant not only determines the benefitted properties, but also conducts the election, determines the weighting, counts the votes and issues the final tally. This MnDOT calls transparency because the results become public information. No election judges, no observers at the election, no observers of the weighting and counting of votes, no revelation as to voting lists and no proof required of eligibility or of obtaining a ballot.

In a democratic society this is no way to run an election. Nor is it a reasonable way to treat residents of neighborhoods walled in or taxpayers who must pay the bill.

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Arvonne Fraser's picture
Arvonne Fraser

Arvonne Fraser is an author, activist, feminist, wife, mother, and grandmother.