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Pandemic once again forces Vt. towns to adjust plans for Town Meeting Day

A photo showing people wearing face masks sitting in rows of metal chairs in a room. It's Norman Rockwell-ian, with a pandemic twist.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
The town of Athens held a meeting recently to decide how it wanted to handle voting this year at Town Meeting Day. Towns across Vermont must make a plan as COVID-19 continues to complicate the decision.

Last year the COVID-19 pandemic forced many towns to scrap traditional town meeting in favor of ballot voting. Many had hoped it would be a one year aberration, but with COVID still rampant, towns are once again figuring out whether to gather on the first Tuesday in March.

In the tiny Windham County town of Athens, a special meeting was called recently to give the select board an idea of how voters wanted to handle the 2022 Town Meeting Day.

Athenians typically vote their town officials in from the floor of town meeting, which requires taking time off work, and showing up in person.

But last year, when COVID forced all voting to the ballot box, participation more than doubled. The same thing happened in Coventry, Fairlee, Pomfret, Glover and many other towns.

Carol Bingham, who came out to the special meeting in Athens on a cold, snowy night, said her family appreciated the way things were run last time.

“My aunt Cora, who many of you know, is 97, was really excited,” Bingham said. “Because last year she was finally able to vote once again.”

“You know it’s been three times as much work as it usually is to plan and administer these elections."
Will Senning, Elections Division director for the Vermont Secretary of State's office

That debate, between keeping the traditional town meeting, and moving the voting to Australian ballot to allow more people to take part, was going on long before COVID.

Now towns have to decide what to do in 2022 as COVID variants continue to upend life in Vermont.

Will Senning, who heads the Elections Division in the Secretary of State’s office, said a lot of people hoped life would be somewhat back to normal this year, but it’s looking like towns will once again have to adjust to the pandemic.

“You know it’s been three times as much work as it usually is to plan and administer these elections,” he said. “They’ve been flexible. They’ve been willing to do what it takes to make sure voters can vote safely.”

More from VPR: With Voter Participation Up, Some Towns May Change Their Town Meeting Day Rituals For Good

Last year the Legislature passed a special law that allows select boards to move all town meeting voting to Australian ballot, and call off the in-person meeting. It usually takes a town-wide vote to make that change.

And lawmakers are expected to pass a similar law this year.

The law will also likely allow select boards to move their town meeting into the spring, when it can be held outside, which some towns did in 2021.

“Last year, yeah, we made mistakes. So did many other towns. It was an emergency situation, and I think for what was thrown at us, we did pretty damn good.”
Sandi Capponcelli, Athens assistant town clerk

In Athens, the select board chairman said he wanted to call this special meeting to give the voters a chance to weigh in.

Athens assistant town clerk, Sandi Capponcelli, acknowledged that there was a learning curve last year.

“Last year, yeah, we made mistakes. So did many other towns,” she said. “It was an emergency situation, and I think for what was thrown at us we did pretty damn good.”

The debate moved back and forth in Athens. In the end, the town kind of split the difference.

They decided to move the voting of officers to Australian ballot, to allow more people to take part, but keep the in-person meeting this year for discussing other town business.

The rest of Vermont has until Jan. 30 to decide what they want to do on Town Meeting Day.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Corrected: January 5, 2022 at 3:32 PM EST
Sandi Capponcelli is the Athens assistant town clerk. She was misrepresented in the original story.
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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