It’s the first Tuesday in March, and that means one thing in Vermont: Town Meeting Day. But this year, like so many things in our pandemic era, things are different.
In some towns, health concerns around COVID-19 mean town meeting will be like none that came before. And in fact, for some towns, today is not even a Town Meeting Day.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with VPR senior political reporter Bob Kinzel about how towns are adapting Town Meeting Day amid the pandemic. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: So virtually all the towns that traditionally hold a town meeting, they've had to make other arrangements this year because of the pandemic. That seems fairly obvious. But what are some of the options that are being used by some of these towns?
Bob Kinzel: Mitch, there are several options. First, there are towns that have decided to delay their floor meeting until sometime in the spring, and they're really hoping that health conditions will allow their residents to gather together at that time.
Stratton is a good example of this approach. They've scheduled their floor meeting for May 18. Now, if things aren't much better by then, they'll have to reconsider their next step.
Second, we have towns that traditionally hold a floor meeting that have decided to go ahead with their voting today. But they're going to be using the Australian ballot to determine the outcome of key issues. And this represents a big, big change for these communities.
You know, usually with a floor meeting, folks can modify and amend budgets after a discussion. Not this year. The Australian ballot only allows for a yes or no vote.
And then third, there are some towns that are using a hybrid approach instead of a floor meeting. They'll also be using the Australian ballot. But they're going to wait until early April to do this so that their school boards have more time to consider their budget.
Let's talk a little bit more about that Australian ballot, Bob, which, by the way, for those who may not be familiar, it means like a secret ballot. You're not, as you said, talking about things openly on the open floor.
I'm wondering, though, if the Australian ballot approach proves popular this year and maybe towns want to keep it in the future, would that end the practice of holding a town meeting? Are there folks that are concerned about that?
There's no question that some folks are concerned, Mitch. Will some voters decide they like the convenience of using the Australian ballot, where they can go in and vote any time during the course of the day? That could happen.
I think it really sets up a key philosophical question. Is it more democratic with a small “D” to allow residents to amend their town budgets and other issues at a floor meeting with discussion with their neighbors, or is it more democratic to have the polls open all day, in order to allow the greatest participation by people in town? It is a very passionate debate for folks on both sides of this issue.
And when it comes to the hybrid model of doing things, Bob, are there any statistics that reflect that, like the size of the turnout in towns that use that hybrid model?
Mitch, there are, and the difference is pretty dramatic.
Let's take the town of Middlesex, located just outside of Montpelier. They have roughly 1,450 registered voters in Middlesex. Now for a traditional floor meeting, they say about 150 people will attend. So that's 10% of the checklist.
For the issues that are decided by Australian ballot, the number jumps to 450 people, or about 30% of the checklist. So there's a sizable difference.
Again, it comes back to one's philosophy about the best approach [for how] to decide these important local issues.
What about bigger communities, Bob, that don't necessarily hold traditional town meetings? Are things any different for them this year?
They are. Almost all the communities that don't hold a floor meeting are going ahead with their usual system of using the Australian ballot.
But what we're also seeing is some towns incorporating different strategies of using mail-in voting.
This year, some towns are sending out postcards, encouraging folks to request a ballot. And some, like Montpelier, actually send out ballots to all registered voters. And as we saw with the Legislature when they debated this issue, some people feel very strongly that a voter should be required to at least ask for an early ballot. Other people think it's a better idea to just send the ballots out to everybody and then let them return them.
Such an interesting question, because I imagine that a lot of local officials would anticipate that the push for mail-in voting would result in higher voter participation?
Mitch, I think conventional wisdom says yes.
But in Montpelier, City Clerk John Odum says the number of early ballots being sent in is nothing like it was for the November election. Of course, that was a presidential and a statewide election. This election is much more local. It generally attracts fewer voters in any case, so it'll be really fascinating to see if sending out ballots to all voters does increase overall turnout or maybe not.
So let's say voter participation, just for the sake of argument, does go up. Do officials have a sense of how the traditional turnout could affect the outcome of a lot of things, like budget issues?
You know, that's a really good question, Mitch. Gov. Phil Scott has always maintained that if more people voted on Town Meeting Day, then many school budgets that were seeking sizable increases would have been defeated in the last 20 years. But I'm not sure if anybody knows if this is true or not.
People who are passionate about their local school budgets, both pro and con, tend to vote. But what about these folks in the middle? If they're sent a ballot, how will they be inclined to vote? And maybe when you look at the results of today's voting, we'll have a better idea of how all this shakes out.
Bob, a number of communities – not all of them, but quite a few – are going to have a question about cannabis on their town meeting ballots this year. What's that all about?
Well, the cannabis law passed by the Legislature has what's known as an opt-in system for towns that want to allow retail cannabis stores in their community. There are votes in about 25 towns today.
Now, if a town votes no, then there will be no retail stores allowed in that community.
It'll be really interesting to see how the results of these local votes turn out, because there really hasn't been a lot of discussion about this this winter. So I'm not sure anybody really knows how these towns are going to vote today.
We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.