Woodstock opts for Australian ballot voting for Town Meeting

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-12-2024 8:02 PM

WOODSTOCK — The town will conduct all of its Town Meeting business using Australian ballot voting this year.

On Monday night, the Woodstock Selectboard voted to employ Act 1, a law that grants town governing bodies the “temporary authority” to change the format of Town Meeting.

The law, which was signed last January by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, expires this July and is an extension of previous voting bills enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the law, the Selectboard must hold a virtual public informational meeting prior to the Australian ballot vote. Woodstock has not yet set a date for the meeting; Australian ballot voting will take place Tuesday, March 5.

Municipal Manager Eric Duffy emphasized that the change under Act 1 was for this year only.

“This is the last year you can use this provision, unless the state decides to make it permanent or extend it for a few years,” Duffy said in a Wednesday phone interview.

Traditionally, Woodstock has held in-person Town Meeting on the Saturday before Vermont Town Meeting Day, with votes for town officials held by Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day.

During the floor vote, residents vote on the town budget and special articles; residents elect town officials, decide on petitioned articles — which require 150 signatures to put on the ballot — and vote on bonds.

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The Selectboard vote to make the change this year was 3-2, with Chairman Ray Bourgeois and members Keri Cole and Laura Powell voting in favor. Board member Greg Fullerton and Vice Chairwoman Susan Ford voted against the proposal. During the discussion preceding the vote, Ford shared worries about using Act 1 to use Australian balloting after the town held an in-person Town Meeting in 2023.

“I’m a little concerned with using … what was designated as kind of an emergency provision for COVID to change something when we’ve successfully had Town Meeting,” she said during a recording of the meeting.

Later in the discussion, Fullerton — as well as members of the public who spoke during the meeting — agreed.

Powell countered that COVID-19 is still a concern in the community.

While the vote only affects this year’s Town Meeting, the majority of those who spoke at Monday’s Selectboard meeting addressed the future of Town Meeting going forward.

Wendy Marrinan said she supported keeping the format as is and that she appreciates hearing the in-person discussions residents have during Town Meeting, which has caused her to reconsider her views.

“I’ve never experienced that revelation by reading the Listserv or reading a letter to the editor,” Marrinan said. “It’s more compelling to be in person.”

In 2023, more than 80 people attended a Saturday Town Meeting, which took place during a snowstorm, Town Clerk Charlie Degener said, and 482 cast ballots on Town Meeting Day.

In 2022 — when votes on a 1% local option tax and retail cannabis sales were on the ballot — there were 867 people who voted. Degener said that he expects turnout to be high this year because of the presidential primary. There are around 2,800 registered voters in Woodstock.

Those who spoke in favor of switching all voting to Australian ballot cited the in-person attendance numbers. They also noted that Town Meeting’s current location, Town Hall Theatre, is not large enough to fit all of the town’s voters.

“I think what matters to me the most is that we make voting as accessible as possible, and I believe that that trumps what our idea is of an informed voter. I think it’s not up to us to decide what makes an informed voter,” Powell said. “I worry that we are holding onto this tradition and unknowingly excluding many people from this.”

If the Selectboard wanted to make the change to all Australian ballot voting permanent, it would need to hold a special in-person Town Meeting to do so, Duffy said. While some Selectboard members said they’d like to hold a special meeting to decide the issue, no such meeting has officially been voted on or set.

If Woodstock were to make the change permanent, it would join other Upper Valley towns that have switched from traditional Town Meeting to Australian ballot, including Pomfret and Strafford, which made the change last year.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.