You may recall that I’ve been working on my plans for brutal world domination in my spare time, and lately, those plans took another step forward! I got to exercise my status as member of the Richmond, Vermont “Board of Civil Authority” and help run Town Meeting! Next stop, THE WORLD!
Okay, I guess I should back up a bit there. Town Meeting?
Okay, see, in Vermont, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March is “Town Meeting Day“. The voters of each town come together to meet, discuss, and vote on important matters like the town budget … and occasionally, on some rather strange not-so-important matters as well.
This was my first Town Meeting Day as a Vermont justice of the peace. The assembled JPs for each town (my town is allotted 12) make up a body called the “Board of Civil Authority”, which basically works out to “the folks who run the elections and maintain the voter list” and “the folks who hear petitions for tax abatements”. We didn’t have to do much to actually organize the voting; our town clerk took care of that. But I helped set up the gym and the voting machines the day before and I spent pretty much the whole day of Town Meeting proper sitting at a table with a stack of town ballots and a stack of school board budget ballots looking voters up in a notebook and checking ’em off and then handing them ballots. (We had it down to a science — one table for people with last names starting with letters A through L, and another table for the M through Z people. Two people at each table; one looks the name up, and the other hands the voter their ballots. We were a well-oiled machine.)
Polls are open all day on Town Meeting Day from 7 am to 7 pm for residents to vote via Australian ballot for town offices (selectboard, town constable, moderator, library trustee, stuff like that) and for the school board and school budget… but that’s not what really makes town meeting day Town Meeting Day. The Australian ballot is for the boring stuff — town offices and the school budget. The really fun stuff gets hashed out at a 9 am mass meeting where anyone who’s a) registered to vote and b) has enough free time to hang out in a gym for hours on a Tuesday morning, gets to discuss weighty matters of town business and ultimately vote on whether to adopt the town budget. You don’t necessarily get a representative sampling of the town’s electorate… but that’s understood and kind of expected. Town Meeting Day wouldn’t be the same without the quirkiness.
Most towns hold their meeting at the local school; for example, our town meeting takes place in the gym at Camel’s Hump Middle School We also use the school cafeteria; most towns hold town meeting in the morning, get the budget taken care of, and then break for lunch before resuming in the afternoon for any remaining business. I have a feeling that the “town potluck” aspect of Town Meeting Day is what some people like best. You hear stories waxing lyrical about the macaroni and cheese Mrs. Johnson used to make each year before she passed… and stuff like that. In Richmond, the ladies of the town grange sell baked beans, sandwiches, donuts, cookies, and what have you; their baked beans are semi-legendary. Then after that, we come back together for anything else people want to bring up. If someone wants to introduce a motion to declare war on North Dakota, they can do that. If they vote to declare the town a nuclear-weapons-free zone, they can do that too. This year a lot of towns passed resolutions taking a stance against climate change.
It’s a day for democracy on a very local level.
My duties as name-checker and ballot-hander-outer kept on going during the meeting proper; I had my back to the rows and rows of chairs facing the stage where the moderator and selectboard were seated, but I could hear everything just fine. It was sort of amusing watching voters — the ones who came by just to cast their ballot for town offices and the school board budget — blanch as they realized they were going to have to cross in front of everyone to get to the voting booths.
The town budget presentation was pretty straightforward and nothing strange happened during the ensuing discussion … which kind of disappointed me.
See, I’ve rarely made it to Town Meeting in the past; I’m one of the working stiffs whose job just doesn’t lend itself to taking a day off midweek to hang out with my fellow voters at the school. But this one time that I did go — probably about fifteen years or so ago — the discussion relating to the school budget was absolutely hilarious. (This was back when the school budget was discussed and voted on in the town meeting proper; they subsequently changed it to Australian ballot because it was getting voted down in open meeting too often.) It’s not unusual for people whose kids are grown and gone, or who never had kids in the first place, to question the need for “spending so much” on the schools. And so that one time, people kept trying to amend the budget to remove this line item or that line item in the name of saving a token few thousand dollars. The poor town moderator had to keep explaining that the content of the budget was not up for vote; the school board is entrusted with that. The only thing the town voters were legally entitled to do was vote on the total amount to be spent. Voters who objected to a teacher’s aide being funded could move to strike exactly that much money from the budget, and their motion, if passed, would accomplish … pretty much nothing. The school board could still fund that position and reduce a different line item by the amount of the voter-demanded adjustment. (It’s like saying “I object to you spending $15 of your salary on that punk rock CD, son, so I’m reducing your allowance by $15.” Son’s still going to buy the CD.)
But anyway, since the school budget was moved to Australian ballot a few years ago, the 2019 town meeting budget discussion focused entirely on the town budget — highways and roads, police, stuff like that. And while there were a few questions, it wasn’t really a controversial issue. We didn’t even count the votes; it was just one big “ALL IN FAVOR: AYE ALL OPPOSED nay THE BUDGET PASSES” thing.
And then the meeting broke for lunch in the cafeteria. I stayed put, because I was so into my “HEY LOOKA ME I’M A JUSTICE OF THE PEACE AND TOWN ELECTIONS OFFICIAL” thing and wanted to keep on looking names up and handing out ballots.
After an hour or so for lunch, about half the crowd that had been there in the morning trooped back in and attended to “new business”. .. which mostly consisted of random complaining about this and that (parking in the “downtown” area, such as it is, especially). No motions were introduced and there was nothing to vote on. So we wrapped it up and all the attendees went home or off to work … and my fellow election officials and I got back down to the important business of … looking voters’ names up in the book and handing them ballots.
Voters kept coming by all afternoon, but it was pretty slow. We had more than enough bodies on hand to do the work of the ballot-handing-out, so I excused myself and went home and fed the cats and came back around 5:00 to be there for the after-work voting rush, such as it was. That was when Carole came by to vote; I got her to take several photos of me being all Mister Important and stuff, but alas, the volunteer working with me at the table for the people with last names starting with letters A through L told me she did not like having her picture taken and did not want me posting photos of her, so this is what you get — cropped (see below). I’m sure, though, that the excitement and drama still comes through.
At seven pm, we closed the doors and wrapped up. It took about ten seconds to find out the results — the tabulation machine spat out a tape with the total votes for each office and ballot question. (We only had two contested offices — one Selectboard seat and one seat on the Library Trustees. Neither wound up being especially close.)
But then came the real fun — the school budget. Richmond is part of a consolidated school district with four other towns — Huntington, Bolton, Jericho, and Underhill. Two JPs from each of those towns had to take their locked school board ballot box and bring it to our voting location, since we’re central. And two of us Richmond election officials had to stay as well (I, of course, had volunteered). We had to open the boxes, take out the big pink cards with “shall the budget blah blah blah be adopted YES NO” on it, and “commingle” them. Meaning, we had to dump them all on a table – over 2,000 of them – and sort of mix them around with our hands before gathering them back into stacks to feed manually into the tabulators. The idea was that by mixing the ballots up we wouldn’t know how the vote had gone in any given town, even though the ballots had no town-of-origin mark on ’em. (I honestly didn’t see the point, but who am I to argue with tradition?)
With two tabulators and three humans feeding the ballots into each, one by one, it took us about an hour to feed them all in.
And then when all was said and done, the budget passed by a wide margin. I was very glad about that, because frankly, it drives me crazy how some towns’ voters seem to take an infantile joy voting down their school budget over and over. I’ve seen towns have to hold follow-up budget votes three times before they finally manage to pass a revised budget. After each failure, the school board has to go and meet and issue a revised, lower, budget proposal. And, of course, a lot fewer people come out for the subsequent votes, so typically it’s the people with a real axe to grind who show up to cast a ballot. No wonder it can take multiple tries to get a school budget passed. So, like I said, I was very glad our budget passed; thrilling as the exercise of my official responsibilities was, I don’t want to have to do it again for a year or so.
People always ask “Why don’t we hold town meeting on a weekend, or in the evening, or just do away with it entirely and have everything, including the town budget, get voted on by Australian ballot?” The answer? Tradition. No matter what alternate time of day or day of the week you propose, there are always people who object based on various imaginary or real conflicts they’d have. Some towns have moved their meetings, and others have switched to all-Australian-ballot voting, but the vast majority of Vermont towns still do things the old-fashioned way. (If you’re curious, there’s a map that breaks it down.)
I guess it’s those baked beans that the Ladies of the Grange sell. No one wants to miss out on those, right?