Panton votes to alter town meeting date, voting rules

PANTON — At a special meeting held on Monday evening, Panton residents voted almost unanimously to approve three measures that town officers hope will improve voter participation when the town makes annual decisions each March.
The roughly 60 voters who attended the meeting voted yes on a measure to move Panton’s annual meeting from its traditional time, the morning of the first Tuesday in March, to the evening of the first Monday of that month.
They also approved two measures to elect town officials and make town spending decisions by day-long Australian balloting to be held on the first Tuesday in March, thus eliminating the floor votes that have been the focus of the Tuesday morning meetings.
Panton Selectboard Chairman Howard Hall said he was thrilled by the potential the new system has to reverse low rates of participation in town voting that the selectboard has noticed in recent years.
 “I’m extremely happy,” Hall said after the meeting. “I think this is going to be a great, great thing for Pantonians to be able to vote and get involved in the community more easily.”
Hall said during the meeting commitments such as childcare and work outside of town have in recent years made it difficult for residents to come to Tuesday morning meetings.
Selectboard members believe many voices have been lost in the voting process as a result: The town meeting this past March saw just 23 residents (about 4.7% of Panton’s 492 registered voters) decide on how to allocate $1.36 million in town funds, among other town decisions.
After Monday’s meeting, Panton joins a number of other towns in Addison County that have moved away from holding floor votes on the morning of the first Tuesday in March. Bridport, Hancock, Orwell, Granville and Whiting are the only towns that still meet and hold floor votes on the traditional day.
Australian balloting will hopefully remedy low turnout by allowing residents to cast early votes and submit absentee ballots, Hall said.
“Thirty days before the vote, you can get your ballot,” Hall said during the meeting. “You can have your ballot sent to you and you can mail it back.”
The three measures that the voters approved read as follows:
•  First, “to change Town Meeting day to the first Monday preceding the first Tuesday in March.” Hall told the Independent last week that the Monday evening town meetings will probably be held at 6:30.
•  Second, “to elect town officers by Australian ballot.”
•  Third, “to adopt all budget articles by Australian ballot.”
Residents at Monday’s special town meeting seemed as excited with the changes as Hall. When it came time to vote, all three items were met with little debate: The first and third measures were greeted with a just a few “nays,” and the second was met with a unanimous wall of “ayes.”
Although it received the most “ayes,” the second measure took the longest to discuss before it was put to a vote. Some at the meeting asked for clarification around how potential candidates will get on the ballot come March.
Hall explained that those wishing to run for town positions would be required to obtain five signatures — 1 percent of the town’s registered voters — in order to earn a spot on the ballot. Candidates will also have to sign a “confirmation form,” Hall said, so that anonymous people don’t nominate others for town positions without their knowing, a problem he said has sprung up in the past.
David Rafael, a planning commission member, raised the question of whether the Australian ballot system would require candidates to choose a political party affiliation to appear on the ballot. After the meeting, selectboard member Zachary Weaver said that the selectboard would allow the candidates to make that decision for themselves.
“We’re going to leave that up to the candidate who’s running,” Weaver said. “If they’d like to (put down a political party), they can. It’s kind of an open source. If you’d like to put an R or a D or an I next to your name, that’s fine. But right now it’s not necessary, totally open.”
According to Hall, the new town meeting that will now be held on the first Monday evening in March will be more of a discussion space that will allow residents to share thoughts on candidates and spending measures as opposed to the voting forum it was in the past.
“Say Zach and I were running for the same position on the selectboard: He would have his position statement and I would have my position statement and then we would have questions from the floor for each one of the candidates,” Hall said. “So people then could hear what we have to say the day before they vote.”
Panton resident and former selectboard member Beth Tarallo wasn’t able to attend the Tuesday morning meeting this past March when 23 voters made decisions for the town. Tarallo said she believes the new system is a good step forward for people like her who have been unable to vote because they had to miss meetings in the past.
“I was not able to vote on the budget this past cycle, and it’s the first year in many that I wasn’t able to, and I thought to myself, I wish that I could have had an absentee ballot,” Tarallo said. “I’m really excited about it, especially with the budget, being able to be voted by ballot.”

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