On October 27, 2021

Will Hartland expand democracy?

By Curt Peterson

Hartland resident Ana Mejia, attending the Hartland Select Board meeting via Zoom, calmly laid out a list of reasons why the town might consider using the Australian ballot system and other changes for deciding town issues, to increase inclusivity. Election of town officials, she suggested, could continue, and only budget and other warned decisions would use paper ballot voting.

Merriam-Webster defines “Australian ballot,” a term often heard but seldom contemplated as such: “an official ballot printed at public expense on which the names of all the candidates and proposals appear and which is distributed only at the polling place and marked in secret.”

The system was first used in 1860.

Most members of the five-member board voiced resistance to any change in the traditional open floor-vote Vermont Town Meeting.

Mejia’s suggestion that many voters, including herself, could not attend a daytime, weekday Town Meeting because of work, childcare responsibilities, disabilities or other reasons, leaving a small group of attendees to make life-affecting decisions for all 2,900 registered voters, was met with, “People can get to Town Meeting if they want to,” from long-time board member Gordon Richardson.

Board chair Mary O’Brien expressed her own “passion” on the subject: “It’s a 250-year old tradition, and if it goes away, we won’t get it back.”

O’Brien compared Mejia’s suggestion to the school board meetings, which, she said, went the Australian ballot route and no one attended the pre-vote informational meetings.

Mejia cited relative success of the 2020 virtual Hartland meeting and Australian ballot experience, necessitated by the Covid pandemic. More than 900 paper ballots were cast, compared to 100 or so votes heard from the floor at the traditional meetings. A small number of voters who are able to vote in Damon Hall make decisions that affect all 2,900 registered voters, she said.

The Vermont local government system makes Mejia’s suggestion challenging to accomplish. The Select Board is only the overseer of the actual legislative body, which is the voting public. As such, the board could not change the format autonomously, or even include the option in the warning, without public input. O’Brien correctly suggested a petition as Mejia’s appropriate avenue to replacing in-person floor voting to Australian ballot voting in Hartland, although the change would require approval at the in-person 2022 meeting.

Ultimately, Selectman Curtis Atkisson moved “that the Select Board examine how technology can be used to increase the inclusiveness of Town Meeting in its current format for Town Meeting 2022.”

Atkisson’s motion had consensus.

One possible result could be for CATV to make viewer participation and voting possible during Town Meeting, which would still require virtual attendees to have both the time and internet access to take advantage of the opportunity.

Killington, which had a 2010 full-time population of about 1,000, has held a public participation information and discussion meeting the eve of Town Meeting Day for a decade or more, with at least 100 attending in person, and 234 paper ballots cast, other than in 2020, when attendance and voting were adversely affected by the pandemic.

Lucrecia Wonsor, Killington’s town clerk and treasurer, said a committee of residents, concerned about poor attendance and lack of inclusivity at traditional Town Meetings, inspired the change in timing and format to increase participation, which was successful.

Mejia, who moved to Vermont from Los Angeles for an internship at the national park in Woodstock, and to North Hartland three years ago, told the Mountain Times she is thinking about her next steps. She works part-time in the Hartland clerk’s office.

“Most of the conversations I’ve had were with people who are in favor of exploring the idea,” she said, “but some were opposed to any change in the system, and were as adamant as some on the Select Board.”

She said she hopes people who are interested in exploring ways to make voting on local issues more accessible and inclusive will seek her out to come up with ideas for promoting participation and discussion at the 2022 Town Meeting. Or for more information, email Mejia at amejia274@gmail.com.

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