Low attendance spurred some discussion about ways of improving Newfane’s Town Meeting. Two possibilities were raised: 1) allowing the use of remote participation via technology, and 2) changing the time and/or the day of the meeting.
Technology & Remote Participation
The technology issue came up unexpectedly when a member present at the meeting called a voter who wasn’t and offered to put the absent member on speaker phone.
As moderator in a town that does not (yet) have legal protocols for electronic participation in Town Meeting, I couldn’t allow the absent member participate remotely.
There is at least one town in Vermont that does allow for electronic participation. According to Tenth Anniversary Update of All Those in Favor by Susan Clark and Frank Bryan, Middlesex has been using existing phone- and Internet- technology to allow members to be virtually present at Town Meeting since 2008. Members who otherwise couldn’t attend in person can be seen and heard, and they can vote by voice and by show-of-hands.
As Clark and Bryan explain, however, there are challenges, both technological and human:
- How does a town assure that all voters who want to participate have the proper technology and training to use it?
- Who provides that technology and training?
- How does a community decide who’s eligible to participate electronically?
- How does a live meeting incorporate the participation of remote participants?
The irony is that Middlesex actively recruits remote participants, but finds only one or two people each year to take advantage of this technology. Most people who attend Town Meeting want to attend in person.
As a moderator, I would welcome remote participation from one or two people who were truly unable to attend for reasons of health or military service. But I don’t know anyone who would want to moderate a meeting with a room full of computer screens, let alone attend such a meeting.
Changing the time and/or date of Town Meeting
The other possibility the Newfane Meeting proposed for increasing attendance was changing the time and/or the date of the meeting.
That not everyone can take a day off for Town Meeting is absolutely true, and many towns have changed both the date and the time when their Town Meeting takes place.
Yet the data that Clark and Bryan have been collecting about attendance at Town Meeting show that attendance on Saturdays is generally worse than on Tuesdays, and evening meetings are not better attended than those held during the day. Some of the reasons they cite include:
- A greater reluctance to miss a day of play than to miss a day of work;
- The timing of school vacation and Town Meeting;
- A lack of childcare;
There’s nothing we can do about the weather, but bad weather is shown to keep more people away from evening meetings than from meetings held during the day. And weather aside, data show fewer elders and fewer women attend evening meetings.
Australian Balloting Lessens Voter Participation
Other attempts to improve voter turnout, like Australian balloting, have also fallen short of expectations. Clark and Bryan are unequivocal about how Australian balloting lessens voter participation and threatens Town Meeting all together. Their analogy says it all: “Using the Australian ballot instead of a town meeting is like creating an ice sculpture by taking one great swing at a block of ice with a sledgehammer instead of carefully applying a chisel with care over time.” And they have the data to prove it.
Face to Face Discussion of Community Values
The bottom line is that part of the value of Town Meeting is that it is a face-to-face endeavor where people who may not know each other well or at all must discuss and decide what their community values are and to legislate them in person. According to their research, participation increases with the weightiness of the issues to be discussed.
Make the First Tuesday in March a State Holiday
People don’t want to come simply to approve a budget; they want to come and make meaningful decisions about how they want to live in community. Perhaps we need to make the first Tuesday in March a state holiday where Vermonters celebrated this endangered form of direct democracy.
And after they’ve voted, people also want to eat. Thanks to the Williamsville Hall Committee this year, and to Lynn Forrest in particular, participants at Newfane’s Town Meeting sat down to a splendid potluck lunch just after noon.
Welcome New Voters
But there’s more a town can do than just feed everyone to keep Town Meeting vibrant and meaningful. Welcoming new voters is one.
First-time voters accounted for ten percent of the electorate at this year’s Town Meeting in Newfane, and they were greeted with a resounding round of applause. Toward the end of the meeting, one of the new voters said words to the effect that now that she’s participated in Town Meeting, she feels as if she belongs.
Read the Book.
Aside from living democratically, there’s a lot of social capital to be gained by nurturing a strong town meeting, so it’s worth preserving. Clark and Bryan suggest twenty things people can do to improve Town Meeting; ten are immediate actions and ten are actions that take time. I highly recommend reading the book, All Those in Favor. It’s less than a hundred pages – shorter than Newfane Town Report. The Moore Free Library in Newfane has four copies to loan.
Written to educate and entertain, Living in Place is where I publish my sometimes pointed, sometimes poetic and sometimes irritating essays about the human condition. By subscribing, you will have an essay every week delivered to your email and you will be supporting my independent, non-commercial voice. Thanks.