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A return to in-person Town Meeting Day? Vt. communities weigh permanent switch to Australian ballot

A photo of two people sitting on wooden benches and talking to each other with a lot of people in the background.
Toby Talbot
Associated Press File
Maria Cabri, left, and Eva Behrens exchange thoughts before the town meeting Tuesday, March 6, 2012 in Strafford, Vermont. Strafford is among the towns voting on using an Australian ballot system in the future.

Today is Town Meeting Day in most communities throughout Vermont. Although there were a few towns that held their annual meeting already.

The COVID pandemic definitely affected the number of towns that held in-person floor meetings for the past two years, but what’s the situation this year?

Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political reporter Bob Kinzel. Their conversation is below.

Mitch Wertlieb: So there was a really drastic reduction in the number of communities that held in-person town meetings in 2021 and 2022. We know why: concerns about COVID. But it's 2023. Now how do things look this year?

Bob Kinzel: There has been a huge comeback in the number of communities that are holding those traditional in-person town meetings this year, Mitch. Two years ago, as you mentioned, because of COVID, there were just a handful of towns that actually had a floor meeting, the rest voted by Australian ballot — where a person can vote anytime during the day. That was a big adjustment for those towns. Now, last year, several dozen towns held in-person floor meetings. But the vast majority of communities continued to decide key issues by using the Australian ballot. Things though have really changed this year, at least 175 communities are holding a traditional town meeting.

Karen Horn is the public policy director at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. And she says many towns are very eager to hold a meeting again.

“Oh, I think that people really did miss that opportunity to get together in person and discuss issues," Horn said. "I think that this is really your only opportunity to engage in the discourse around direct democracy. There's not any other place that that happens.”

More from Vermont Public: Your guide to Vermont's Town Meeting Day tradition: Here's what you need to know.

Now, Susan Clark, who is the town moderator in Middlesex, and the author of several books on town meeting, also told me that she thinks many communities feel very strongly about returning to a traditional town meeting this year.

“And I do think that it's fair to conclude that Vermonters are ready to get back together in person, and to really engage in self-governance in the way — that in-person way — that town meeting allows us to do,” Clark said.

Mitch, there are also a small number of towns that decided to delay their return to the in-person town meeting until next year, they still have concerns about COVID. But they definitely plan to go back.

And Bob, just a quick aside here, because you did mention voting by Australian ballot, which is something that some towns do, which is basically a secret ballot. But I'm curious, why is it called an Australian ballot?

That's a great question, Mitch. The Australian ballotis also called the secret ballot. It actually started in Australia in 1856. There were a couple of places there that decided that they wanted to have secrecy. And so it allowed voters to mark the ballot without anybody looking at it. And that process then spread to Europe and the United States.

“I think that people really did miss that opportunity to get together in person and discuss issues. I think that this is really your only opportunity to engage in the discourse around direct democracy. There's not any other place that that happens.”
Karen Horn, Vermont League of Cities and Towns

Well, thanks for taking that detour, Bob. I just had to know.  It's something I've been wondering about for quite some time now. And I'm sure other people have as well.

At the same time, I'm wondering if the future of town meeting is being discussed and debated in some communities today, given everything that's happening with coming back from COVID?

It definitely is, Mitch. There are at least six towns that will debate if they should continue to hold a traditional town meeting, or if they want to shift over to the Australian ballot system. And there are another 12 towns that are considering a partial shift. Now one of the six towns is Strafford. Lisa Bragg has been the town clerk there for the past 18 years.

“So the town of Strafford traditionally, over the last 200 plus years has been a town for voting system for the town of Strafford," Bragg said. "It would be a change to allow more voters to vote by Australian ballot if it passes. It's on the warning. So there is discussion in town.”

And Mitch, the question of voter participation at town meetings versus the Australian ballot system is a complicated issue. In general, more people will cast a secret ballot on local issues than will attend a town meeting — in some cases, twice as many. But at the same time, smaller communities usually have higher participation rates for their floor meetings.

Susan Clark told me that she sees this issue in terms of having, “a quality democratic process”—that's the town meeting, versus one that favors a quantity process — that's the Australian ballot.

“So thinking that my only way to participate democratically is through a ballot, it's kind of this impoverished view of what democracy is," Clark said. "We are so much more robust as Vermonters in our perception of democracy, and in the way we do democracy, than just ballot voting.”

And Mitch, several towns held their floor meeting last Saturday in an effort to increase voter participation, and we're gonna see how this trend turned out.

More from Brave Little State: Is Town Meeting Outdated? (And Other Questions You Asked Bob)

And Bob, some years there is a statewide issue that's being considered in a lot of towns, or the consideration of school budgets—that's an issue that's come up in many different parts of the state. Anything like that happening this year?

Well, we don't have any statewide resolutions as we have in some past years. And I don't think there's really been a strong effort in many towns to reject their school budget, as we've also seen in past years. But municipal budgets could emerge as a focus.

Now because of inflation, many of these budgets are increasing faster than in the past, and a number of larger communities are considering significant infrastructure bond votes. Karen Horn at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns thinks many voters will take a close look at their municipal budgets this year.

“Because the same inflationary drivers are there, right? For equipment and supplies; for gravel; for paying people; retaining staff. So there are going to be increases on the municipal side,” Horn said.

And Mitch, there are also several towns that want to raise local money to match federal ARPA funds that are available for some of these infrastructure projects. We'll be watching those votes as well.

And Bob, when we think about Town Meeting Day, I think often we think about the smaller towns, the communities, people getting together, potlucks. But Vermont has about 30 communities with populations of more than 5,000 people. And really, it's impossible for those communities to hold a traditional town meeting because of the size. What are some other options for those towns with a larger population?

Mitch, probably what Brattleboro does is the best option available. In Brattleboro, they hold what is known as a representative town meeting in May, to consider key local issues. And people are elected from various neighborhoods to represent their constituents at the meeting. Author Susan Clark thinks this approach makes a lot of sense.

“It's a great model, because it retains that deliberative — that back-and-forth process that happens in deliberation," Clark said. "And you can amend and you can, you know, have the two arms of government hold each other accountable.”

I should mention Mitch, that this representative form of governance has been popular in Massachusetts for decades.

And Bob, I know you've been checking out the Town Meeting Day warnings across the state. Any items that particularly caught your eye?

Well, several towns are voting whether or not to create paid staff positions, because some jobs are just getting too complicated for volunteer workers. And as usual, a number of towns are considering buying a new fire truck. These vehicles are not cheap, they can run as much as $1 million!

But I think the bottom line today, Mitch, is that many communities will be holding their traditional town meeting, and they're very excited to be able to hold those meetings in person once again.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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