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 town meeting. To understand town government in Vermont, it is essential to understand town meeting.
“Town meeting” is direct democracy by citizens. It is a New England tradition dating back to Colonial times. (Just like switchel!) This post is about town meeting as practiced in Vermont and especially in Cambridge.
Town meeting is a meeting of the town’s registered voters. Every town in Vermont has an annual town meeting in March. Towns may also hold special town meetings at other times. The first Tuesday in March is Town Meeting Day, a state holiday (1 V.S.A. § 371).
At the annual town meeting, voters:
- Elect town officers
- Approve the annual town budget
- Consider public questions
Officers: Typical elected officials in Vermont towns include selectboard members, town clerk, town treasurer, delinquent tax collector, listers, auditors, constable, library trustees, cemetery commissioners, etc. Also elected is a town meeting moderator.
Budgets: The selectboard proposes an annual town budget, and the citizens vote on it.
Public questions: This is everything else. A “public question” may range from the purchase of land for town purposes to a statement about national or world affairs.
The agenda for a town meeting is called a “warning.” Each item in the warning is called an “article.” Substantive issues cannot be considered at town meeting unless they are in the warning. The selectboard drafts the warning. Citizens may petition the selectboard to include an article in the warning by submitting an appropriate request signed by at least 5% of the registered voters in the town.
A key thing to understand about town meeting is how articles are decided. They are decided by one of two possible methods:
- Floor vote
- Australian ballot
Floor vote: A floor vote may be decided by a voice vote, division of the house (show of hands or standing vote), or paper ballot. The moderator will know the rules for which method must or may be used in various circumstances. If decided by paper ballot, blank paper ballots are handed out and voters write down how they are voting. The ballots will be collected and counted, and the results announced, before the meeting continues. Regardless of the method, a citizen must be present at town meeting to participate and have their vote counted.
Australian ballot: The Australian ballot method uses pre-printed ballots. Voters mark their ballots and place them in the ballot box. Voting takes only a few minutes and can be done throughout the day. Citizens need not be present at town meeting to cast their ballots. Ballots are counted at the end of the day.
The Australian ballot method is convenient. Voters can stop by at any time the polls are open (7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Cambridge), cast their ballot, and be on their way. They can even vote by absentee ballot before Town Meeting Day.
But articles decided by Australian ballot are fixed in stone. They can only be voted up or down. They cannot be amended. Articles decided by floor vote can be amended during the floor discussion, which provides for considerable flexibility. Furthermore, the floor discussions are often interesting and illuminating.
The default voting method in Vermont town meetings is to decide articles by floor vote. This makes sense because in town meeting the voters 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.
Nevertheless, Vermont allows its towns to change to the Australian ballot method, if they wish, for some or all of the issues that are decided in town meeting in any or all of the three categories listed above: officers, budgets, and public questions. In Cambridge town meeting, all issues are decided by floor vote. (In Cambridge town school district meeting, officers and public questions are decided by floor vote, while budgets are decided by Australian ballot; but this series of posts is not about school districts.)
Vermont law requires that some issues be decided by Australian ballot, such as a vote to borrow money by issuing a bond.
The more a town uses the Australian ballot method, the less vibrant is town meeting. When articles are decided by floor vote, it is not unusual for voters to change their mind as a result of comments made by their neighbors during floor discussions. This is a powerful form of community and local democracy that one does not get at the ballot box.
The Vermont Secretary of State publishes more information about town meetings here, including a Citizen’s Guide to Town Meeting. There is also information at that link about the various voting methods used by Vermont towns. Different towns use different methods for voting on the various issues that come before town meeting. Every possible combination of voting methods in used somewhere in Vermont.
For a good discussion of why Vermont uses the phrase “Australian ballot” see this 2014 article in the Burlington Free Press: In Vermont, ballots are Australian.
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.”