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Luskin: Ballot Box Blues

Town Meeting Day itself may be over in my town – but the voting isn’t. We’ll go to the polls two more times, both for Australian Ballots that failed. The first recall is for the Union High School, whose seven million dollar budget lost by ten votes. It would be easy to blame the low voter turnout on the snowstorm on voting day, but the truth is more people voted this year than did last year, when the weather was fair.

Since only a handful of people attended the annual meeting held the day before the vote, the high school board of directors is at a loss to explain it. An Australian ballot doesn’t tell them what it was about the budget that voters objected to. A few voters voiced their concerns about particular line items after the vote. But nearly two hundred voters signed a petition to reconsider the original budget, so that’s what we’ll vote on when we return to the polls in April.

In May we’ll go to the polls again to elect board members for our local school - if anyone chooses to run. But our elementary school budget of nearly two million dollars passed by a voice vote at the school’s annual meeting, where we vote from the floor. That vote followed forty minutes of discussion, where those in attendance asked questions, made comments, and learned more about our school.

Because our elementary school serves two towns, there was potential for a packed house, but only forty-five voters turned out. As usual, some people muttered about changing this vote to Australian Ballot, but to do so, they’d have to get an article on the warning – and show up to vote. A neighbor says he couldn’t attend the school meeting due to a prior engagement. Since we also set the date, time and place of the annual school meeting a year in advance, I suspect this really means that he simply had a different engagement.

It takes commitment to civic life to show up and vote, even with a year’s advance notice. But the truth is switching to an Australian ballot doesn’t improve voter participation. Despite the belief that more people will vote if they don’t have to attend a meeting, studies of Vermont voters demonstrate this to be untrue.

Even if it were true that Australian balloting increased voter turnout, I’d oppose it. Australian balloting makes it too easy to cast an uninformed vote. Worse, Australian balloting doesn’t allow the electorate to amend a budget as a result of floor debate. Further, I think Australian balloting allows for the increased polarization that plagues our federal government to infect our local politics.

I get that attending a meeting can be inconvenient. Working through a debate takes time and patience. Speaking in front of one’s neighbors takes courage. Democracy is a slow and sometimes messy process, but only through nuanced deliberation do we have the potential to achieve true local control.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator.
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