Democracy How? The Pandemic Has Weakened — but Not Killed — Vermont’s Grand Town Meeting Day Tradition | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Democracy How? The Pandemic Has Weakened — but Not Killed — Vermont’s Grand Town Meeting Day Tradition

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Waterbury Town Meeting Day - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Waterbury Town Meeting Day

When Hinesburg residents voted in December to change the way they decide Town Meeting Day issues — from an in-person meeting to secret ballot — they did away with a March tradition that has been bringing community members together in Vermont for nearly 250 years.

Hinesburg resident Bill Baker, for one, is glad. Now, he suggests, everyone — including the housebound, people who work out of town during the day and Baker's own kids in college — can have more of a say in local matters. He believes that town meeting's time has come and gone.

"Town meeting was a fabulous tradition back when we were an agrarian society and the farmers had time in March, because that's when mud season was, and they could go there and vote," said Baker, who makes his living managing the 50 apartments he owns in Burlington. "But requiring people to be at a certain place at a certain date and time to vote runs counter to the way society is moving."

Town meeting participation has been dropping for decades, not only in Hinesburg but also in other Vermont communities, especially those in which many people work out of town and don't have the time for hours-long meetings to discuss the minutiae of local government. The towns that still hold all their voting on the floor of a school gym or grange hall tend to be some of Vermont's smallest.

Last year, the legislature gave all municipalities one-time permission to move their town meeting votes to secret ballot — also known as Australian ballot — without first authorizing the change at an in-person meeting, as required by law. Prompted by pandemic restrictions, the state also allowed municipalities to mail ballots to active, registered voters ahead of town meeting.

In many places, the result was a huge increase in turnout. No statewide data is available on how many more people voted in March 2021. But in Hinesburg, where there are 4,000 voters on the rolls, the number of ballots cast soared from the 194 who voted at town meeting in 2020 to 900, according to the town clerk's office.

Other towns saw similarly big changes when they switched to Australian ballot last year. Voting participation rose from 2.4 percent in Manchester to 34 percent, and from 4 percent in Bristol to 20 percent, according to a survey tally that is kept by the Vermont Secretary of State's Office. Participation rose from 14 percent in Lincoln to 37 percent, and from 8 percent in Underhill to 32 percent. In Morristown, turnout increased from about 4 percent to 35 percent of registered voters, according to Town Clerk Sara Haskins.

Morristown Town Clerk Sara Haskins - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Morristown Town Clerk Sara Haskins

Those results have renewed the long-running discussion about the best way for communities to conduct the business of deciding budgets and electing local officials. Is it preferable to draw the most voters? Or is it better to attract fewer voters but give them a greater voice in shaping policy?

It's a debate that shows no sign of ending, despite the lessons of 2021.

In mid-January, Gov. Phil Scott weighed in on the side of making it easier to vote on Town Meeting Day, as well as in state elections. He asked the General Assembly to allow towns to mail out ballots for all elections from now on. Currently, the state only sends mail-in ballots for general elections.

"If passed, we could be a model for the country," Scott said in a January 14 letter to lawmakers. "What we need is increased voter participation for elections like those on Town Meeting Day or school budget votes, which experience a fraction of the turnout of general elections."

Nevertheless, Hinesburg stands alone so far in having voted to make a permanent change. And traditional town meeting still has its passionate advocates.

Dover Town Clerk Andy McLean is one of those. He describes the March meeting as a rare form of democracy in the modern world, one in which voters have the opportunity to shape town policy directly and not simply vote on what the selectboard has recommended.

"Town meeting is a treasure, and it's not because it's quaint or it's precious as a legacy," McLean said. "The vote is the little tiny last endpiece of the process. The process of getting to what to vote on is the whole thing."




'Real Democracy'

Town Meeting Day in Calais, 2021 - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Town Meeting Day in Calais, 2021

Town Meeting Day in the Green Mountains dates back to 1762, well before Vermont gained statehood in 1791. The March meeting was conceived of as a citizen legislature, a place where any resident could speak and be heard, no matter who they were.

The meeting is not representative democracy, as is the Vermont legislature; it's pure democracy, according to Frank Bryan, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Vermont who studied town meeting for 30 years. The fact that each registered voter in town is also a "legislator" separates the New England tradition from all other forms of democracy, Bryan concluded in his 2003 book, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works.

Over the decades, Bryan dispatched an army of students to gather data at more than 1,500 town meetings in 210 Vermont towns, noting a drop in participation, particularly in larger municipalities.

"Citizens will participate — and often at great cost to themselves — when they know the political arena is small enough for them to make a difference and there are issues at stake that really matter to them," Bryan said in a 2013 interview with UVM's Center for Research on Vermont. But as towns have grown and that political arena has gotten larger, participation has declined.

"We know that town size is the most important determining factor of town meeting attendance," said Susan Clark, who has served as moderator in Middlesex for 15 years and coauthored a town meeting book, All Those in Favor, with Bryan in 2005.

Demographic changes also play a role. More people work away from the towns where they live, making attendance difficult or impossible. Clerks widely agree that most of the town meeting participants they see these days are retirement age or well over it.

Movement from rural areas to more urban ones also contributes to the decline, Clark said. While many Vermont counties lost population or remained stable between 2010 and 2020, Chittenden County's population grew by 7.5 percent in that time, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

In response to these changes, many towns have gone to a hybrid system, using Australian ballot for some questions — such as voting for town officers — and deciding other issues, such as public questions and the budget, on the floor.

In 2013, the Vermont Secretary of State's Office started surveying the state's 251 municipalities with questions about turnout and voting methods. About 130 responded that year, and 76 said they made all their decisions on the floor at Town Meeting Day. By 2020, with about the same number of towns reporting, that number had dropped by 14 percent to 67. Town meetings that year weren't affected by the pandemic.

John McClaughry and others at Town Meeting Day in Kirby, 2017 - FILE: NANCY PIETTE
  • File: Nancy Piette
  • John McClaughry and others at Town Meeting Day in Kirby, 2017

The annual gathering, scheduled in most towns this year for Tuesday, March 1, often deals with mundane matters such as road maintenance, purchases of new fire trucks and the like. But when big issues do come up, such as the school district consolidations in the wake of Act 46 over the last few years, or town positions on social and environmental issues, passions flare and discussions on the floor can run for hours.

"It was at town meeting in the 1830s and 1840s that Vermonters started talking about ending slavery," said former governor Jim Douglas, who teaches a class on Vermont government and politics at Middlebury College.

Douglas was Middlebury's town moderator — the elected official who presides over the meeting and makes sure that it runs according to the rules — for 33 years until he retired in 2019. He said town clerks have told him that when a resident complains about a local issue, such as taxes, it's usually someone who didn't attend town meeting.

"You should go to town meeting and speak up there," he said. "It's an opportunity to be a legislator for a day."

The town meeting format also encourages people to discuss contentious issues in a civil manner, something that's becoming a lost art, Douglas said. Through a floor discussion in a community hall, people can learn the reasons behind others' points of view.

"We may not embrace them, but at least we can understand them better if we listen and talk," Douglas said. "And we're less likely to be shrill and discourteous if we are talking with someone directly rather than electronically."

That opportunity for civil discussion is one reason McLean, the Dover clerk, is waging an eloquent public relations campaign on the topic, telling anyone who will listen why it's crucial to keep town meeting as is.

"In this day and age, with what social media has done to our political discourse, we need to get together in one big room, all of us, regardless of what we think and what we feel about various issues, and talk to each other and come to agreement and compromise," he said.

Dover preserved that ability to debate and amend last year by moving its town meeting to May and having voters gather at the base lodge of the Mount Snow ski resort.

"We went over and above to ensure we could have that in-person town meeting," McLean said.

Dover's delayed gathering also honored another town meeting value: For some rural residents, the meeting offers not only direct democracy but also a way to renew the important sense of belonging that comes with life in a small community.

Christine Evans, a resident of Westmore in the Northeast Kingdom, looks forward to the return of the lunch put on annually by the local Ladies Aid Society. This will mark the second March without it. The 350-person town went to voting by Australian ballot last year.

"They make the most wonderful spread for everybody, and they put together this long table," Evans said. "I think it's the reason why town meetings always go on until after lunchtime, because no one wants to leave before lunch."

She predicts that her town will return to the traditional town meeting when COVID-19 safety restrictions allow it.

"And when it comes back, everybody will be happy to come back, and it will be just as it was before; it's just the way Westmore is," Evans said. "I don't think Westmore has ever changed."

That resistance to wholesale change is evident two hours south in tiny Athens, which held a special in-person meeting in December to consider moving its town meeting permanently to Australian ballot. Residents agreed to elect town officials by secret ballot but saved their town meeting. It still will be held to discuss and vote on the budget and other financial matters.

Athens Town Clerk Darlene Wyman said 60 to 90 people usually attend town meeting — a relatively strong turnout for a hamlet of just 380 full- and part-time residents — and about 190 people voted last year, the first time Australian ballot was available. Young people, not just retirees, do attend the meeting, she said. She hasn't heard anyone express a wish to abandon the tradition.

"I don't think that's going to change," she said.




More Power to the People?

Hinesburg Selectboard chair Merrily Lovell - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Hinesburg Selectboard chair Merrily Lovell

Direct democracy has a champion in the legislature. State Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, cares about preserving the autonomy of small-town voters. She has watched with dismay as town meeting attendance has dropped. Recent events, including the pandemic and Scott's support for mail-in balloting, have left her wondering what will come next.

"I think there are a lot of selectboards out there that would like to go to Australian ballot, saying, 'Look, when we had town meeting, 250 people showed up and voted. And when we had Australian ballot last year and this year, we had 475. So we should try to go to Australian ballot completely,'" she said. "But [voters] don't get any of the discussion and debate. They can't change anything."

White is waging a battle to make town meeting more relevant to more people. A bill she introduced this year, S.181, seeks to let towns, not the state, decide on things such as adopting a local option tax, choosing how many people can serve on the selectboard or doing away with the position of constable. That, she said, is key to raising participation.

"Unless towns really have the authority to make decisions that are meaningful to them, then town meeting is just going to be something that the Boston Globe thinks is pretty cool and sends a reporter and takes pictures of people knitting and baked bean dinners and 'Isn't this cute?'" White said.

"There has been a real move toward Australian ballot because it's more efficient and involves more people," she said. "And if you aren't making meaningful decisions, why not?"

White also believes that Hinesburg's vote to move permanently to Australian ballot was invalid. Even under the pandemic-era emergency law, towns wishing to make a permanent switch must first do so at an in-person town meeting, she said.

"I don't think they went against the spirit of the law; they went against the law," said White, who hopes citizens sue the town over the move.

The position of the Secretary of State's Office is less clear-cut on the validity of Hinesburg's vote.

"These questions, when they are serious enough, are sorted out in the courts," said elections director Will Senning, who noted that his office doesn't have investigative or enforcement authority in town elections. No one has offered a legal challenge to the Hinesburg decision.

Hinesburg Selectboard chair Merrily Lovell said the board was just doing what it thought was required when it held the December special election. "The state has not said to us that what we did was illegal," Lovell noted.

This year, partly because of the questions raised by Hinesburg's vote, a new law more explicitly explains that a vote to move permanently to Australian ballot must be made at an in-person town meeting.

As for Scott's interest in authorizing towns to mail out ballots for all elections, his press secretary, Jason Maulucci, said he hasn't seen any bills this year that could accomplish the Republican governor's goal.

"It's unlikely but possible it could be included in the budget or via a committee bill, but we haven't heard much interest from the majority party," Maulucci said.

If towns do choose to use mail-in ballots, the Vermont League of Cities & Towns wants the state to continue to pay for it, executive director Ted Brady said. He's glad that the new law leaves it up to the towns to decide when and how to accomplish their Town Meeting Day business.

"What's good for Williston isn't what's good for Readsboro," Brady said.




Arguing for Change

Carrie Spear - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Carrie Spear

Haskins, the town clerk in Morristown, grew up going to the annual meeting with her mother, who was town clerk in Wolcott for 36 years. From fourth grade on, Haskins helped her mom put together the annual report and check in voters. In middle school, she babysat the younger kids during the meeting.

Now that she's a town clerk herself, she cares deeply about maintaining the spirit of the day. But she's also realistic about what present-day voters want — especially after seeing how many more cast ballots last year when they didn't have to go in person.

Haskins has worked hard to get voters to show up, but "either they don't want to or they can't," she said. "It's definitely more convenient to vote by Australian ballot."

Cabot Selectboard chair Mike Hogan was surprised and impressed by town meeting when he moved to Vermont from Wisconsin 30 years ago. He enjoyed seeing issues debated on the floor.

"I get it; I really do," he said of town meeting. But before the pandemic, just 80 to 100 people were showing up to approve budgets worth millions of dollars. "I didn't think that was a good way to approve the budget of the town," he said, noting that Cabot used Australian ballots last year and will again in March.

In Charlotte, Carrie Spear has been taking the day off from her business, Spear's Corner Store, for 21 years to attend town meeting. She enjoys hearing what her neighbors have to say and loves the idea that regular voters can shape local decision making.

Yet Spear's husband tends to avoid attending because he prefers not to be in crowds, even pre-COVID-19. And Spear also knows a lot of people who work out of town. She thinks that they, too, deserve a chance to vote.

"It's not easy for people to go to town meeting," she said.

Charlotte Town Clerk Mary Mead echoed those sentiments. "[Town meeting] is not the same as it was 20 years ago, and it's never going to be like that again, because that's just not the way people operate out in the world anymore," she said. "It's not how they conduct business."

And not everyone believes that moving to Australian ballot eliminates the spirit of the meeting.

"It just changes the nature of it," said Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor), who lives in Woodstock. In normal times, Woodstock uses a hybrid system, with an informational budget meeting on Saturday and voting on Tuesday.

"You come to town meeting expecting to hear an explanation of the budget from the town, and there are new things brought up, and there is lots to discuss," she said at a hearing of the Senate Government Operations Committee in mid-January.

"For us, it's a town meeting."




Trying to Adapt

Sens. Alison Clarkson (left) and Jeanette White - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sens. Alison Clarkson (left) and Jeanette White

Former governor Douglas remembers hearing concerns about the imminent demise of Town Meeting Day in 1986, when he started working as Middlebury's moderator. Towns had already started coming up with strategies to draw more people, and clerks continue that effort today.

The annual meetings are traditionally held on the first Tuesday of March, though under state law, they can be held on any of the three days before then. Many towns have experimented with Saturday meetings in the hope of raising attendance. Others hold it on Monday night. Clark said providing childcare and food seems to help.

Haskins purposely includes activities that bring young people onto the floor of the Morristown meeting, such as a high school student with a speech or a sports fundraiser staffed by players. The Boy Scouts are there to lead the pledge of allegiance.

"If I can get kids involved, their parents have to drive them, so it brings that generation," she said.

Putney changed its meeting to a Saturday one year. White, who was serving on the town's selectboard at the time, said they thought more people would participate because they'd have the day off from work. But the numbers stayed about the same.

"We thought that was because they didn't understand that we had changed it, so we did it another year, and they still didn't show up," White said. "What people told us was that they'll give up a day of work but they're not going to give up a weekend day."

Some voters agree with Clarkson, the Woodstock senator, that holding an informational meeting the day before they vote by Australian ballot gives townspeople at least some of the benefits they used to get from town meeting.

But Clark, the Middlesex moderator, tries hard to steer voters away from the idea that informational sessions can replace a true town meeting. Speaking to those in power, with no authority to change policy, "is an extremely thin form of participation," Clark said.

In 2016, Charlotte tried a different form of hybrid decision making. After residents complained to the Charlotte Selectboard that not enough people were able to get to town meeting, the burg won a charter change in the state legislature that allowed it to divide the process into two phases. Voters could discuss and amend budget-related articles on the floor at town meeting. Then those budgets went up for vote by Australian ballot several weeks later.

"It was an elegant solution to everyone's concerns of, 'How do we still allow for the most direct democracy, where line items can be amended on the floor of the selectboard's presented budget, but also allow as many voters as possible to vote?'" selectboard member Matt Krasnow said.

But it didn't increase participation. Nobody petitioned the selectboard to continue that practice, and the change expired in 2020. Krasnow said the town is now considering moving the meetings to Saturday.

Town Meeting Day was one of Krasnow's favorite events when he was a student at Charlotte Central School in the 1990s. He served as class president in sixth and eighth grades and loved seeing the community turn out to have a say on shared business.

Now that he's working as a construction superintendent for a company in Shelburne, Krasnow would rather take a vacation day than miss town meeting. He sees it as his civic duty and as a smart way to keep track of how the town is spending his tax dollars. And he's passionate about the idea of self-governance.

"I prioritize it," Krasnow said. "It's a unique opportunity that people in other states don't have. It's a special connection with Vermont's democratic history."

He sees a place for both Australian ballot and town meeting in the state's future.

"Every effort to strengthen the participation in democracy is worth it," he said. "If we can get 50 percent more people to the ballot, that's great; if we can get 50 percent more to town meeting, that's great. More participation ... is always worth it, for the long-term health of our democratic systems."