Voting Methods at Town Meeting

This post is part of a series of posts on “Learning about town government” in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Please see the link for context, a disclaimer, and a list of posts in this series.

This post is about voting methods at town meeting.

See the earlier post About Town Meeting for an introduction to this topic.

To review and summarize that earlier post:

  • There are two methods of voting at town meeting: floor vote and Australian ballot.
  • There are three categories of issues decided at town meeting: officers, budgets, and public questions.
  • The general rule in Vermont is that most issues are decided by floor vote. But a town can vote to change to the Australian ballot for some or all issues. And a town can vote to change back to a floor vote.

Questions discussed in this post: What are the pros and cons of voting by Australian ballot vs. floor vote? What should citizens think about when deciding how to vote? How does a town change its voting method?

Advantages of the Australian ballot

Everyone is familiar with the Australian ballot. It is how we conduct our elections for state and federal offices.

The Australian ballot is easy and convenient. For an issue decided by Australian ballot (e.g., the school budget in the Cambridge town school district meeting), you can stop by any time during the day (7 AM to 7 PM in Cambridge), pick up a ballot, cast your vote, and leave. You can even vote early by absentee ballot.

Voter participation is greater with the Australian ballot.

Disadvantages of the Australian ballot

Officers: If no one is on the ballot, it is not possible to nominate someone from the floor.

Budgets and public questions: Articles cannot be amended or postponed. They can only be voted up or down.

Citizen attendance at and engagement in town meeting is lesser with the Australian ballot.

Advantages of a floor vote

Officers:

Candidates can make short campaign speeches, if asked by the moderator. A previously undisclosed candidate can be nominated and elected. People who are not present can be elected.

Budgets and public questions:

Articles are subject to discussion before the vote. Citizens can express their views, and hear the views of their neighbors. It is not unusual for a voter to change their mind after hearing other views. The discussion on the floor is almost always informative and often entertaining.

Articles can be amended. The budget is only a proposed budget. Voters can change it. Sometimes a budget or other article that would otherwise be voted down can be saved with a simple amendment.

An article can be postponed if the assembly does not wish to vote it up or down. Several different motions can be used in this situation. If you feel this is the mood of the assembly, ask to recognized by the moderator and, when recognized, tell the moderator what you would like to do. The moderator will help you use the right motion.

Disadvantages of a floor vote

You must be present to participate. You must be present in the meeting when the article comes up for debate and action.

More about voting by Australian ballot

Australian ballot articles at the annual meeting are always voted on Town Meeting Day (the second Tuesday in March), even if the annual meeting itself has been moved to an earlier day.

Is discussion of an article decided by Australian ballot allowed during the meeting?

Officers: Only if the annual meeting is held prior to Town Meeting Day.

Budgets and public questions: Yes, but no amendments or other motions are allowed.

How does a town change its voting method?

A town can change to the Australian ballot for some or all issues. And a town can change back to a floor vote. How does a town make such changes?

Changes in voting method must be approved by the voters at an annual or special town meeting. That means there must be an article in the warning to change the voting method. Vermont law specifies the format of such articles. See 17 V.S.A. § 2680.

An article to change the method of voting is a public question. So a town will vote on an article to change its method of voting by the method (floor vote or Australian ballot) that it uses to decide public questions.

If a town votes to change its method of voting, the new voting method will take effect at the next annual or special town meeting. A town may not vote to change its method of voting and use the new method of voting at the same meeting. See 17 V.S.A. § 2680.

“Every citizen a legislator”

In town meeting, the citizens are the legislative branch of government. A legislature is a “deliberative assembly” (Wikipedia). That means there must be an assembly (i.e., a meeting) and an opportunity for discussion and amendments. A member of the legislature in Montpelier must be physically present to vote and be counted on matters before the legislature. That’s how legislatures work. It is the same for citizens in Vermont town meetings for issues that are decided by floor vote.

The quote “Every citizen a legislator” is from the book All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community by Susan Clark and Frank Bryan, published in 2005 and updated in 2015, p. 22. This book is an excellent “how to” guide for effective town meetings. Many people in Cambridge have read this book.

Another good resource about town meetings is Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works by Frank Bryan, published in 2004. Frank Bryan is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont. This book is the result of 30+ years of research about town meetings by Prof. Bryan and his students.

Earlier posts on this blog discuss Cambridge town meetings in 2017 and 2018. The next annual town meeting in Cambridge will begin at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, March 5, 2019 at the gymnasium at the Cambridge Elementary School in Jeffersonville (a village within the town of Cambridge).

Click here to go to the initial post in this series: “Learning about town government.”

UPDATE 2/18/19: Voting methods in Cambridge:

Town meeting

  • Officers: floor vote
  • Budgets: floor vote
  • Public questions: floor vote

Town school district meeting

  • Officers: floor vote
  • Budgets: Australian ballot*
  • Public questions: floor vote

*Voted at the 2007 annual meeting, Article 14.

 

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