Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Secret ballot or public votes from the floor? Pandemic-era changes stir debate on New England town-meeting structure

Town Meeting of Tunbridge, Vt., May 2022, delayed two months due to Covid-19 (Valley News photo by James Patterson)

May I have the floor? If you're at a New England town meeting, that's an important question. First, bear in mind that every bit of New England, except sparsely populated areas like northern Maine, lies within the boundary of a town or city. Towns are New England's fundamental unit of government, like the county is elsewhere in the U.S.

"The institution of Town Meeting dates to the 1630s, the days of the earliest European settlements," notes Alex Hanson of the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt., as he reports a move to secret-ballot voting: "The past two years with Covid-era trials 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 . . . will reconvene for floor meetings for the first time since before the pandemic and will consider whether to move to ballot voting."

Debating whether to have or not to have town meetings has "revived a long-standing debate about New England’s signature form of government," Hanson reports. "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 push for Australian ballot vs. in-person town meeting is often economic, Hanson reports: "Vermont law requires employers to give workers the day off for the meeting, but it isn’t always feasible. . . . 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."

For broader perspective, Hanson called Susan Clark, longtime town moderator of Middlesex, Vt., and a researcher of town meetings. "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. . . . 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." 

"Australian-ballot voting allows more people to participate, but it shrinks the legislature’s vocabulary" in holding town selectmen to account, Hanson writes, quoting Clark as saying that the results of a secret-ballot vote, without the background discussion, is like sending U.S. Sen. Peter Welch to Washington “and telling him he can only use two words: ‘yes’ and ‘no’.”

Clark quoted fellow town-meeting researcher Frank Bryan: "Yes, Town Meeting has its flaws, but show me a better system." Bryan argues that town meetings are "accessible to people of all classes, and that towns with lower socioeconomic status have just as much turnout as better-off communities," Hanson writes. Clark said the opposite is true with secret-ballot voting, which she said is skewed by socioeconomics and race.

“Basically, we do democracy differently at Town Meeting,” Clark told Hanson. “We tell stories. We show up as neighbors. … A story can humanize an issue and can actually carry the day.”  Hanson writes, "In the social-media era, that kind of democracy might be more important than ever, she said."

UPDATE, March 9: For the Valley News, former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner Steve Taylor laments the loss of community meals as a central feature of town meetings.  

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