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How Vermont towns like Craftsbury are trying to engage citizens on Town Meeting Day

A ballot drop box in Craftsbury with three pumpkins at its base
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Residents in Craftsbury are reimagining the Town Meeting Day voting process.

Every year as Town Meeting Day approaches, a familiar debate resurfaces in communities across the state: How should residents cast their votes on local issues? Many Vermont towns hold on to the tradition of voting in person, also known as voting from the floor. Some switched to ballot voting during the pandemic and never looked back. Others do a combination of in-person meetings and voting by ballot on certain issues.

Craftsbury, in Orleans County, has been asking these big questions for the last few years. In 2022, the selectboard in Craftsbury formed a citizens committee to develop ideas for strengthening local democracy. This group, known as the Freedom & Unity Task Force, invited all Craftsbury residents to two workshops this past fall.

Susan Clark, a town moderator for Middlesex and professional facilitator across New England, helped Craftsbury through the process of thinking about the town’s democratic values. She approached the town selectboard with a pilot program that received financial assistance through the Vermont Community Foundation.

Craftsbury selectboard member Susie Houston said that the selectboard leaped at the opportunity to work with Clark and the pilot program.

"I really like getting people together and having some of those hard conversations," she said.

Clark said that switching to ballot voting doesn't necessarily solve towns’ concerns about participation. Last year, in towns that use the ballot system, the statewide average for voter turnout was 19.6 percent.

"I think sometimes we think, oh if we switch to ballots, everybody's going to participate," she said. "In fact, across the nation, when we ask people about local issues, we rarely get higher than 25 percent turnout, and it's true in Vermont as well."

Wendy Turnbull, chair of the Freedom & Unity Task Force, said that the Task Force sees itself as providing community wraparound support for democracy at large. Within the Task Force are four working groups, and those groups will be tabling on Town Meeting Day.

"We want to recruit more neighbors and townspeople to get involved and give us their feedback," Turnbull said.

Clark said that while democracy gets compared to a machine that needs to be fixed, it's rather something that needs to be tended to, like a garden.

"We want to treat our democracy with the respect and with the nurturing that it deserves," she said. "It's going to be an ongoing process. And that can be a good thing, that can be a joyful thing."

Broadcast at noon Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
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.