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

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The town of Hinesburg held their meeting online this year and allowed people to vote on budget items through the mail. The town saw a big increase in voter participation.

The pandemic forced Vermonters to rethink town meeting this year. As a result, many towns moved their meetings online and allowed for voting by mail. One survey shows that those changes may have led to a big increase in voter participation.In Hinesburg, Selectboard Chairman Phil Pouech opened the town’s special informational meeting with a warning that things would be different this year.

“First of all, I want to welcome everybody to democracy in a pandemic,” Pouech said. “We hope this town meeting — I’m putting it in quotes — provides the information you need.”

Before the pandemic, the folks in Hinesburg would meet in the Champlain Valley Union High School auditorium on the first Monday in March to debate their neighbors face-to-face before voting on the town’s business that night.

There’s no face-to-face during a pandemic, so the meeting moved online this year. Interim town manager Joy Dubin-Grossman said it went pretty well.

“The wind was blowing. We lost some power in different parts of Hinesburg. But it was really good,” Dubin-Grossman said. “And I think people in town felt pretty darn proud of themselves for what they pulled off.”

Hinesburg usually gets less than a couple-hundred people at its meeting, so only a fraction of the registered voters end up weighing in on the town’s budget items.

Because of the pandemic, the town allowed people to vote by ballot this year, and more than 900 votes came in.

"I think people in town felt pretty darn proud of themselves for what they pulled off." - Joy Dubin-Grossman, interim Hinesburg town manager

Dubin-Grossman says the town will take a look at what worked well this year and make some decisions about what changes to make going forward.

“Whether we go back to voting from the floor or not, I think the town has proven that they can debate and be engaged, even if it is, you know, online, and we’re looking at little squares of people’s faces,” she said. “And it’s not buying the chocolate chip cookies or the  beef stew before and you know those things we’ve become accustomed to, that’s for sure. But it’s still gathering.”

Some towns that used Australian ballots saw a sharp increase in voting, according to a recent UVM study.

Richard Watts is director of the UVM Center for Research on Vermont, and he says, on average, the towns studied in the report saw an almost 38% increase in voting this year.

Fewer people attended meetings this year among the towns that were studied, but Watts says there was a pretty high participation rate among the people who did attend their virtual meeting.

A series of electronic switchboards connected with a town pamphlet on a wooden table in a gym.
Credit Brian Benoit
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A scene from inside Springfield Town Hall on the night the town hosted its informational meeting. Town staff members were socially distanced throughout the building and hooked into the online meeting.

“There may be ways to engage voters through these online platforms that are worth looking at as we rethink what town meeting could be like in the future,” Watts said.

Lawmakers carved out $2 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to help towns cover special election costs this year.

Some towns took advantage of the funding and mailed out ballots to every registered voter.

Town clerks in Brandon, Danville, Strafford and Walden all mailed out ballots and said participation was up.

And in East Montpelier, where they also mailed out ballots to everyone, voter turnout was the highest in 20 years during a non-presidential primary election.

Georgette Wolf-Ludwig is town clerk in Fairlee, and she’s president of the Vermont Municipal Clerk’s and Treasurers’ Association.

"I like the participation being up in Australian balloting. But I do love the community and the Democracy in action with the floor meeting. So I don't know what the state will do. It will be very interesting." - Georgette Wolf-Ludwig, president of the Vermont Municipal Clerk's and Treasurers' Association.

Wolf-Ludwig says with less money next year to support ballot mailing, and much about life in Vermont hopefully getting back to normal, each town will have to decide which of the changes they might want to keep.

“If town voters decide to come forth and want to continue with the Australian balloting, next year would be the time to change that in your town, if that’s what you chose,” said Wolf-Ludwig. “It’s a bittersweet thing for me. I like the participation being up in Australian balloting, but I do love the community and the democracy in action with the floor meeting. So I don’t know what the state will do. It will be very interesting.”

Wolf-Ludwig said it’s been exhausting for clerks to deal with all of the changes  brought on by the pandemic.

And everyone, she said, is happy to get this Town Meeting Day in the books and move on.

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

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