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Should Town Meeting Votes Move To Ballot? One Town Says 'Nay'

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Steve Butler wanted Wilmington to switch all voting to paper ballots to increase participation, an effort that residents overwhelmingly rejected.

Wilmington has decided to keep its traditional town meeting. On Tuesday, voters debated an article that would have moved all future voting to the ballot box.

Supporters of the measure said more people would get a chance to weigh in on town business. But the question raised issues about democracy, participation and even the state of the world beyond Wilmington's borders.


Steve Butler helped gather signatures to get the question on the warning, and he says the traditional daytime meeting doesn't work for everyone.
"There's maybe 120 people here," he said during Wilmington's meeting Tuesday. "We have 1,400-and-some-odd registered voters in town. Should 120 of us decide how much money we're going to spend for the next year?"

Butler went before the voters in Wilmington Tuesday to try to convince them to hold all of the town's future voting by paper ballot.

Butler says holding a meeting during the day cuts too many people off from the democratic process.

"We're limiting the number of people that are allowed to vote, by voting by voice here ... You really want to eliminate those voices?" — Steve Butler

"We're limiting the number of people that are allowed to vote, by voting by voice here," he said. "If you work for the post office, you can't come to this meeting. If you work for the bank, you're at work right now. You cannot come to this meeting. You really want to eliminate those voices?"

The meeting was briefly hung up on procedure, and there was debate about whether this question of moving all voting to the polls should indeed by decided by more voters — at the polls.

But once the discussion opened up, it was clear that Butler would have trouble convincing the people who showed up to Town Meeting that there was a better way to get the business done.

Jim Burke said he brought his brother from Florida to a meeting a few years ago.

And Burke said initially Vermont's long-standing display of the local democratic process didn't really make an impression.

"That night he said to me, 'Boy, that's pretty Neanderthal,''" Burke said. "But the next morning he looked at me and said, 'I don't get the voice where my tax dollars go in Florida. Now I understand."

A lot of the people who spoke said they agreed that the number of people who show up for the Tuesday meetings is pretty pathetic.

And there was some talk of moving the meeting to the previous Monday night, or to the weekend before Town Meeting Day.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Town Moderator Bob Fisher and the Wilmington Select Board members listen to residents debate switching the town meeting voting policy.

But Lisa Sullivan said there were big issues that the town needed to address beyond just changing how people vote.

"I agree that we do not have as many people represented," Sullivan said. "We don't have very many young people represented. And I think that that's our community's challenge on how to fix. I don't think that by going to Australian ballot, we're going to necessarily fix that problem."

Wilmington's not the only town in Vermont that's dealing with an aging population and with an apathetic electorate.

In many towns, the people who come out to sit through an afternoon of debating bridge repairs and purchasing trucks represent a small sliver of the registered voters.

Still, Merrill Mundell argued that the tradition of gathering together in a room to debate town issues once a year was worth preserving.

"We try to do away with things that are traditional. The truth of the matter is, every time you nip away at it, it takes away a little bit of the special." — Merrill Mundell

"I think what you've got here in Vermont is a pretty unique situation," Mundell said. "We try to do away with things that are traditional. The truth of the matter is, every time you nip away at it, it takes away a little bit of the special. And I urge everyone to defeat the article and we remain with our Town Meeting system."

Butler continued to make his case, rising up throughout the debate to argue for those who can't take time off, and stressing that moving all voting to a ballot would enhance the democratic process, not diminish it.

Laura Stevenson said she wasn't opposed to voting by ballot. But she said that in a world that seemed to be spinning out of control, Town Meeting is still a place where you could argue with your neighbor, and then look him or her in the eye and move beyond the differences.

"We don't agree. But we do agree that the town is important, that the school is important, that we are important," Stevenson said. "And in a world of fake news, and identity politics — you know, you can get your special news in your special bubble — hey, we have to meet each other face to face. And I think that's worth more than an inconvenience."

Butler's move to change over all of Wilmington's voting to Australian ballot was overwhelmingly rejected.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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