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Vt. Town Meeting Day 2023: What pandemic-era changes will still be in place

A man hands voting materials to a woman inside of a polling place.
Kevin Trevellyan
Vermont Public File
Lincoln election volunteer Jamie Dolan hands a Town Meeting Day voting packet to a resident on March 1, 2022. A new bill signed by the governor extends many pandemic-era Town Meeting Day changes. So, what will Town Meeting look like this year?

For many Vermont communities, Town Meeting Day has been an in-person event — until the pandemic ensured it wasn’t. New legislation signed by Gov. Scott last month extends some of those pandemic-era changes to Town Meeting Day for another two years. So, what changes will still be in place? Host Connor Cyrus talks with Vermont Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas.

This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Connor Cyrus: How are you doing? And how is adjusting to the new role as Secretary of State going?

Sarah Copeland Hanzas: Well, the first month has been just a whirlwind, getting to know the different divisions of our office. We register corporations, we license professionals. We are the keepers of the state archives, and of course, we are the state's election officials. It's been a wonderful trip through each of the different divisions of the Secretary of State's office, getting to know the folks, and it's really nice to work with a group of people who are just passionate and committed to doing good work for Vermonters.

What has surprised you the most about being on the job?

I think I've been just really delighted at the extent to which the folks in the office have really welcomed me in. Having different meetings with folks in [the Office of Professional Regulation] so that they can really show me the work that they're doing on behalf of Vermonters. We try to get people's license applications turned around as quickly as possible. It's just been a delight to get to know people.

You're replacing a former Secretary of State Jim Condos, who was in the office for 12 years. What advice or conversations have you had about getting adjusted and easing yourself into this role?

I had some time in December to overlap with Jim. I came into the office several days a week, and really just spent a lot of time talking with him about how he approached the office, what his priorities had been, and how he arranged the resources that he had to focus on them. A lot of what I want to do is very much in line with with what Jim Condos has done, in terms of making sure that our elections are fair and accessible, making sure that we stand for open government, for the people's right to participate in that government. I've got a few different things that I want to try that I think will help improve that over the long run.

You made a lot of promises during the Vermont Public debates. Some of them I want to run by you and see where we are in terms of progress. Now, one of the things you said you would like to do is to recreate the advisory committee to the Secretary of State's office, what you described as a group of town clerks that would meet regularly and communicate with you. Have you started that, and where are we in this advisory committee?

Our first meeting will be next month in March. I have chosen an array of about 13 clerks from around the state, from small towns and large towns, from towns that do hand count for their elections because they are so small, to other communities that use tabulators for their elections. I am most of the way through calling the folks that I'm inviting to be a part of that of that council, because I want to make sure that when we meet in March, that we can really hit the ground running.

Our office touches our municipal officials in a number of different places, whether it's through our state archives, through our Elections Division, through our municipal services, and so it's going to be a full year of packed agendas as we meet monthly with this group of town clerks.

There's another thing you said during the Vermont Public debates, which was that you wanted to create a universal voter guide. You describe that as sending a URL that would go out, and that would have all the information about the candidates and issues as a way to create more access and get people participating in the democratic process. Where are we with that? And do you see that as a realistic thing for Town Meeting Day?

It's not going to happen for Town Meeting Day. Unfortunately, there are such a variety of issues that are on the ballot in the 247 towns on the ballot, or on the agenda, in the case that they meet in person. We're not going to be able to do that for municipal issues, but my goal is for the general election in 2024. Our education and civic engagement coordinator will have that as a sort of phase three of their new job. Phase one and two being really launching the civics and education civics curriculum, and then phase three being the creation of that voter guide for Vermonters.

You can always take notes from the Vermont Public voter guide. [Both laugh.]

Now, speaking about Town Meeting Day, which is on March 7 this year, the rules of Town Meeting Day have changed since the pandemic, and Gov. Scott just signed an extension to COVID-era voting options. What does that mean for individual cities and towns in our state?

What the Legislature passed this year that my office supported was an extension of the COVID-era flexibilities. Because communities that hold their town meeting in person needed a way during the pandemic to either delay the date of that meeting to a time when they could meet outside, or maybe to a time when there was not an active COVID surge in their community. Or we wanted communities to have that flexibility to decide to go to Australian ballot, so that they can continue to conduct town business, but do it in a way that doesn't require, you know, shoulder-to-shoulder attendance in the town hall.

In 2021, the first winter of the raging pandemic, there were probably five communities that had an in-person town meeting. In 2022, that number grew to maybe 25. This year, I understand that there will be somewhere between 150 and 200 communities that go back to their regular in-person town meeting.

Some communities in the meantime have decided that they liked the ability to vote by Australian, ballot and they actually held special meetings and took the official action of moving permanently to Australian ballot. Many other communities are rushing back to say, "Hey, we really missed this. We love Town Meeting, we love that the school groups can have their bake sales and their luncheons, we love getting caught up with people we don't see very often." It's been interesting to watch how communities are using that flexibility.

I want to go to the phones and I want to talk to Robert in Burlington. Robert, welcome to the show.

Hi, I've met this Secretary a couple of times. I'm an advocate about ranked-choice voting, but I'm also a kind of a thorn in the side of other organizations that promote ranked-choice voting. Secretary, I want to encourage you to not give up on continuing to have a process transparency in our elections. Will you not give up on process transparency? Thank you for that.

I want to thank Robert for the call and also for his continued focus on ranked-choice voting and on getting it right. There are many folks who liked the concept of ranked-choice voting, the ability to say, "Hey, this is my favorite person, but if that person doesn't come in the top candidates, I want to have a second- or third-choice vote." It's great concept. There's a lot of work that the Legislature is going to do in the coming weeks and months in order to prepare for the passage of a bill. I'm really thankful that that Robert has been engaged in the process and is going to testify today in committee.

Before we took that call, we were talking about some of the pandemic pandemic-era changes, and the fact that Gov. Scott has signed this law that would set — extends those changes for another two years. Does that take us away from Vermont tradition of voting and Town Meeting Day?

So if we left this in place permanently, I think it would. We were very specific — remember, I was in the Legislature when we put these emergency provisions in place — we were very specific that we wanted to make sure that if a community wanted to do away with Town Meeting all together, that they had to do that in that Town Meeting setting. Because it's a conversation that a community needs to have together in order to decide that they want to go in a different direction.

You know, there's something really wonderful about coming together with your neighbors and debating about whether your town should spend that money on either that fire truck or maybe on that sidewalk improvement project. I've observed so many times when I've been participating in Town Meeting that you go, you think you're gonna vote one way on something, and the debate between your neighbors changes minds. I think that's a really special and valuable thing.

Communities need to be deliberative as they decide whether to continue with Town Meeting, or whether they want to go back to Australian ballot, an easier way for folks who are working to be able to participate.

Later in the show, we're going to talk about the archives of the state, and in the Vermont Public debate, that was an area that you said you wanted to have more reform on. Where are we going to see reform when it comes to archives in our state, in your leadership?

You will notice when you meet up with Tanya Marshall that she is the professional. She knows how our archives run, she knows how our documents need to be preserved. What I'm observing is that Vermont is — and probably many states are — sort of in that transition too. From the time when at the end of an administration, you might move a box of documents into the record center, versus now when it is electronic.

We have a lot of work to do just in terms of making sure that across state government, we are filing those electronic documents appropriately, labeling them appropriately, making sure that we know how to then search for them. Because the beauty of having the documents electronically is that you know if they're named and filed correctly, you can find them very easily, as opposed to the paper document where you have to get the forklift out and you know, maybe go up to the you know, sixth level of boxes and and pull the box out. The electronic search should be much easier going forward, but we're all learning how to have better habits in terms of how we store our documents.

Broadcast live on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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

Connor Cyrus was co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition from 2021-2023.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.