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By John Hilferty
On Town Meeting Day this past March, something extraordinary happened in Moretown with nary a flinch of understanding. A vote from the floor set in motion an action that could deprive several Moretown neighbors of their right to vote.
The majority at Town Meeting requested that the select board ask the electorate to decide between the Australian ballot and a voice vote to consider town elections, which would involve chiefly town and school budgets and town and school board officers.
The question won't come up for several months down the road, but I hope that Moretown voters will begin considering the seriously bad consequences if the Australian ballot is dropped after being in place for more than two decades.
By state law, if the Australian ballot is done away for local elections, so is absentee balloting, thus suppressing the right to vote for those working residents whose jobs or other needs prevent them from getting to the polls, particularly on Town Meeting Day. That includes the absentee votes of the military, the sick and persons overseas and those out of the area on Election Day.
(An opportunity for debate over this threat in Moretown will be available June 12 at a 7 p.m. meeting at Moretown Elementary School.)
These are the indisputable facts over the threat to eliminate the Australian ballot:
Lori Bjornlund, the Vermont Elections administrator, warned, "If Moretown eliminates Australian ballot voting then they will eliminate the ability for voters to cast absentee ballots."
She added: "If the town votes to do away with Australian ballot voting for town meetings/elections then all voters will lose the ability to vote unless present at the meeting. So no one will be able to vote early including military or overseas voters. No absentee voting will be allowed."
(It must be pointed out that this alteration in voting would apply only to town elections and not the presidential primary, statewide primary or general state elections.)
What this means for the town of Moretown is that an extremely small number of voters will dictate the size and scope of local budgets and the election of officers probably for many years to come. This past Town Meeting Day, of the 328 votes cast by Australian ballot, 72 were by absentee. It was reported that about 70 persons sat through Town Meeting.
And if this change is so good an idea, why not proclaim it statewide? Since about 20 percent of Vermont's registered voters cast votes through absentee ballots, that will never happen.
There are some at the victim end of the political spectrum who see this maneuver as being an overt symptom of dominant party overreach, or perhaps what James Madison warned about "the tyranny of the majority."
Is it a coincidence that the idea of doing away with the Australian ballot coincides with an uprising of Vermont taxpayers against the year-after-year, tax-and-spend budget bloating that pervades just about every town?
This past election, a record 34 school budgets were defeated throughout Vermont. One can guess that thousands of those voters statewide were among those who, because of their jobs, sickness or military service, voted absentee. A way of silencing that vote is to make it difficult for them to exercise it. That is voter suppression in a modern-day extreme. It is unfair and it is wrong and it must be stopped.
Proponents of voice vote for important measures cite the revered New England Town Meeting tradition where townsfolk "are given the right to discuss, debate, amend and vote from the floor." Sound familiar, like the Monday night pre-Town Meeting which many more residents can attend?
And there are frequent budget hearings throughout the year by both the select board and school board where voters keep informed.
Others who wish to abolish the absentee ballot cite a "return to tradition" that is more romantic than realistic. Keep in mind that in Moretown eliminating the Australian ballot means returning to a tradition that hasn't been one for more than two decades.
Times have changed: According to the secretary of state, in 1974, there were 6,871 absentee votes cast in Vermont, which was 0.026 percent of the 266,649 registered voters. Since then, absentee balloting has ballooned to about 20 percent, or one-fifth of the registered voters in Vermont.
Many working people, who pay the most taxes, do not have the day off to attend Town Meeting, while thousands of public employees – state and local – do, and they represent a voting bloc which can be described, in part, as having a self-serving interest. The fatter the state and local revenues are, the more secure are the employees. State government, with 13,630 full-time employees (U.S. Census 2012), is the state's largest employer.
Moretown residents over these next several weeks have the opportunity to think long and hard about this movement to suppress the vote of several of their neighbors. I invite all those concerned to discuss their feelings about it at the meeting on June 12, 7 p.m. at the elementary school.
John Hilferty lives in Moretown.