Ballot or floor: COVID-era changes stir debate on Town Meeting structure

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-26-2023 6:02 AM

At a class Tuesday night in Strafford’s Cabin Fever University titled “All You Ever Wanted to Know About Stafford Town Meeting,” around 20 town residents wondered aloud how they could combine the traditional in-person meeting and its vigorous and collegial debates with all-day balloting, which allows more people to participate.

The written description of the class warned that it would be “an informational meeting only, not a debate on the merits of either a traditional Town Meeting or Australian ballot.” So, of course, that was all anyone could talk about. It wasn’t a debate, exactly, but more of a conversation.

“This is a preview of what Town Meeting’s going to be like,” David Grant, Strafford’s moderator and one of the class’s two presenters, said as the class ended.

The past two years have given Town Meeting voters a taste of Australian ballot voting, where the polls are open from morning until 7 p.m., and in many cases universal mail-in voting, where ballots are sent to every verified voter. In at least three towns on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley — Bradford, Bridgewater and Strafford — voters will reconvene for floor meetings for the first time since before the pandemic and will consider whether to move to ballot voting. At least two other towns, Royalton and Pomfret, will take advantage of the state’s authorization of a third year of holding Town Meeting by Australian ballot.

The COVID-era experiment, especially with this year’s consideration of more permanent ballot voting, revives a long-standing debate about New England’s signature form of government. Supporters of moving to Australian ballot voting for some or all Town Meeting business note that, in some towns, turnout was double in 2021 and 2022 what it was in previous years of in-person meetings. But the value of the traditional meeting, where neighbors gather to talk over and amend town budgets and other matters, might be greater than ever following the pandemic’s isolation, backers of the in-person format say.

The choice between the two might not need to be an either/or.

“We have to get back in the habit of mixing it up,” Grant said.

A long tradition

The institution of Town Meeting dates to the 1630s, the days of the earliest European settlements in what would become New England. Such meetings were often weekly or monthly before becoming annual, as they remain today.

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“Town meeting fueled the spark that ultimately led to the American Revolution and was lauded and studied for more than a century to follow,” the New Hampshire Municipal Association asserts on its website. “Elevated by the great writers and scholars of the day, town meeting represented the best of American government. Henry David Thoreau called it ‘the true Congress … the most respectable one ever assembled in the United States.’ ”

Perhaps because of that sense of history, towns have hung on to the traditional meeting. Enfield last year voted narrowly against moving from its floor meeting to Australian ballot voting at Town Meeting. The measure needed a 60% supermajority to pass and it failed on a vote of 96 for to 81 against.

Just before the coronavirus shut down the state, in March 2020, Royalton voters rejected the idea of deciding public questions by Australian ballot. Royalton already elects town officials by ballot vote but decides spending and other warning articles at a floor meeting. (Other towns have adopted a hybrid approach, too.)

But this year, the Royalton Selectboard opted to hold an Australian ballot meeting, both because of concerns about COVID-19 and because there are a couple of big questions on the ballot, including an ordinance allowing ATVs on public roads and a plan to institute the town manager form of governance.

“My vote was purely in concern for health,” Royalton Selectboard member David Barker said of approving Australian balloting for this year’s meeting.

“We heard from both the pro- and the anti-ATV people” that they’d prefer a daylong vote, another Selectboard member, John Dumville, said in an interview.

The Pomfret Selectboard decided to hold this year’s meeting by Australian ballot after three of the nine people at a Selectboard meeting late last fall came down with COVID, Chairwoman Emily Grube said in an interview. Town Meeting generally draws 100 people to Pomfret’s cozy Town Hall. Imagine if a third of them got COVID, Grube said.

Royalton and Pomfret took action under authority granted by a stopgap state law passed in January to allow another year of Australian ballot Town Meetings. To make a more permanent change, a town must hold a floor meeting. There are three types of questions towns and school districts can decide by Australian ballot: elections; budgets or other spending articles; and public questions. Strafford, Bridgewater and Bradford voters will consider three separate articles, one for each type of business. The Strafford School District will vote on one article that covers all three types of business.

Changing demographics

As Vermont and the Upper Valley have become more suburban and less rural, many voters who commute and who can’t get out of work to attend a meeting have been stating a preference for Australian ballot. (The term “Australian ballot” refers to any kind of secret ballot voting, but in the Twin States it has come to refer to voting on a printed secret ballot with a ballot box, now more often a tabulator, that’s open most of the day, in some cases from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.)

The past two years of Australian ballot voting during the pandemic has given it some momentum. School consolidation into larger districts that vote by ballot also has played a role.

“We had record-breaking turnout for voters” during the pandemic, Bridgewater Town Treasurer Melissa Spear said in a phone interview. As a longtime member of the Woodstock Union High School district, Bridgewater was accustomed to voting on the high school budget by ballot. When it closed its elementary school and joined with Pomfret in the Prosper Valley School District, its elementary budget moved to a ballot vote, too.

One of the main arguments in favor of Australian ballot voting at Town Meeting is economic. Vermont law requires employers to give workers the day off for the meeting, but it isn’t always feasible.

“Your employer has to give you the day off, but they don’t have to pay you,” Spear said. People who are self-employed often feel they can’t pass up the income to attend a daylong meeting.

Eric Lopez, a member of the Strafford School Board, expects he’ll have to miss Town Meeting for work. The board hasn’t taken a position on Australian balloting, but speaking for himself alone Lopez is for it. While he appreciates the deliberate nature of the in-person meeting, “it’s difficult for me to take the position that denying access to the process is a viable way forward,” he said in an interview.

In a post on the town Listserv, Lopez noted that 223 people voted at the 2020 Town Meeting, while 534 people were able to vote at the 2022 meeting. In addition to people who must work on the first Tuesday in March, people who are ill or disabled also are unable to participate, Lopez wrote.

‘Two good things’

The debate over how to conduct Town Meeting often boils down to quantity of participation against quality, Susan Clark, longtime Middlesex, Vt., town moderator and a researcher of Town Meeting, said in an interview. That might not be the right conversation, she said.

“It’s two good things that we want,” said Clark, who co-authored All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community with former University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan, who dedicated his career to studying Town Meeting.

She pointed out that the Town Meeting functions as a town’s legislative body, and that the meeting happens in part to hold the executive branch, the selectboard, to account. Australian ballot voting allows more people to participate, but it shrinks the legislature’s vocabulary.

“It would be like sending Peter Welch to Washington and telling him he can only use two words: ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ ” Clark said, referring to Vermont’s junior U.S. senator.

While a move to Australian ballot would also entail holding an informational meeting prior to voting, such meetings tend to be poorly attended, Clark said. When voters feel they don’t have an influence they tend to stay home, she said.

If greater participation is a goal, it might be better to find ways to hold the meeting at a time when more people can get there, she said. And what really drives turnout for in-person meetings is the opportunity to discuss the issues. Breaking out more proposals so they can be discussed and voted up or down brings more people to a meeting.

Frank Bryan always used to say, ” ‘Yes, Town Meeting has its flaws, but show me a better system,’ ” Clark said. His research found that Town Meeting is accessible to people of all classes, and that towns with lower socioeconomic status have just as much turnout as better-off communities. Across the country, Australian ballot voting demonstrates the opposite, that it’s skewed by socioeconomics and race, she added.

“Basically, we do democracy differently at Town Meeting,” Clark said. “We tell stories. We show up as neighbors. … A story can humanize an issue and can actually carry the day.”

In the social media era, that kind of democracy might be more important than ever, she said.

“You don’t see them as your neighbors anymore,” she said. “You see them as disembodied opinions. … There are a lot of factors in our world that are pushing us away from each other.” Town Meeting builds something Vermont has always had a lot of: social capital, which Clark called “a superpower.”

Fairlee is going back to a floor meeting this year, after holding Australian ballot meetings the past two years during COVID. Australian ballot is likely to come up under “other business,” Town Clerk Georgette Wolf-Ludwig said in a phone interview. She said she expects good turnout, because the proposed town budget is up by more than 9%.

In the three meetings just before the pandemic, around 75-80 voters attended, but in 2017, 105 voters showed up to debate a big increase to the capital budget, according to figures Wolf-Ludwig provided. During the pandemic, when ballots were mailed to every voter, an average of 275 voters cast ballots, almost all by mail. She expects permanently switching to Australian ballot voting to be on the warning next year.

Pomfret might not wait that long. Grube said the Selectboard might call a special meeting this summer, when people can gather in Town Hall with the windows open, to consider shifting to Australian ballot. The board doesn’t have a position on it, she said.

“If you don’t ask the town,” she said, “you don’t ever know what they want.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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