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By Deri Meier
It is ironic that the Vermont Town Meeting with its tradition of direct democratic participation by citizenry has evolved into decision making by a small minority (approximately 10 percent). This is the direct opposite of the original intention and what a democracy should be. The goal is not to throw out the positive aspects of Town Meeting but to update it in accord with a changed population. We are no longer predominantly an agricultural community where individuals were self-employed, few spent winters south and March was a relatively quiet time. These demographic changes have made our present system of only attendees at Town Meeting being allowed to vote, a system that is an unfair and exclusionary counter to national trends.
A written secret Australian ballot allows participation by residents who winter in the South, working individuals who cannot afford to lose a day's pay, individuals who value their privacy and are inhibited by crowd psychology, and the sick and infirm. All of these people could vote either by absentee ballot or by early/late attendance at the polls. It is generally accepted that an Australian ballot will increase participation and promote fairness, or at least the opportunity to participate.
An Australian ballot provides a tangible measure of support particularly when trends over time are observed. Are previous reports of voice votes as “unanimous” credible or informative? A solid, tangible majority, say 60 to 70 percent, is a clear indication of how a community feels, particularly if the total vote count is substantial.
It is true that the yes/no aspect of an Australian ballot vote precludes modification of the budget from the floor. But board members have spent countless hours considering the issues and knowledgeable and interested citizens have had the opportunity at preliminary budget hearings to provide input. Spirited discussion of contentious issues at Town Meeting can continue and regardless of these issues included or excluded in the ultimate approved/disapproved budget will carry a message for the future.
The current floor vote ensures that some form of the budget will ultimately be approved on Town Meeting Day. But does that not reduce the pressure on boards to “get it right”? Questionable proposals can be included/excluded and “left up to the people” to decide; a perfect opportunity for a small minority to decide for the majority.
Updating our voting procedures allows us to preserve the positive aspects of Town Meeting while removing the undemocratic aspects of unfairness and exclusion. A yes vote for use of a secret, written Australian ballot on budget issues as is currently done for board members and town officials is a vote for fairness and inclusion. A no vote is preserving an undemocratic status quo and saying “stay away” to fellow citizens.
Please try to attend both town and school board meetings on March 4. Ironically, only those in attendance can decide this issue of fairness and inclusion for all.
Meier lives in Waitsfield.