Op/Ed

Eric Davis: Voting will be more complex in March

Selectboards may decide that votes on municipal budgets that have normally been taken on the floor at town meeting should be taken by Australian ballot instead, permitting those who cast absentee ballots to vote on such measures.

More than 260,000 Vermonters voted early this year, by returning the absentee ballots they were mailed in late September and early October. With General Election ballots mailed to all voters, and with town and city clerks allowed to begin processing those ballots in advance of Election Day, Vermonters were able to vote safely and in large numbers.
The next elections on Vermont’s political calendar are those associated with Town Meeting Day in March — votes for town officers and school board members, and on town and school budgets. Administering those elections is more complicated than administering a statewide general election.
Voters who wish to vote by mail in March will need to request absentee ballots from their town and city clerks. Because those ballots are prepared locally, rather than printed centrally by the Secretary of State’s office, mailing them will have to be done on a voter-by-voter basis, rather than by using a statewide, computerized voter registration list, as was the case for the General Election.
With overlapping jurisdictions holding elections on the same day in March, the absentee ballot package will include several different ballots. For example, voters in towns in the Addison Central School District will vote to fill local offices in each town, to elect members of the ACSD school board, and for or against the budgets, and related financial questions, for both the ACSD and the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center. This means multiple ballots to track and process, both for voters and local election officials.
During its September online session, the Vermont Legislature passed, and Gov. Scott signed, Act 162, which makes a number of changes to the statutes governing municipal elections and meetings for the calendar year 2021. First, the act lifts the requirement that persons seeking municipal office in 2021 must collect signatures as part of their petitions to get on the ballot. A petition signed by the candidate herself or himself will suffice.
Second, Act 162 allows towns that normally vote from the floor at town meeting to instead use the Australian ballot, by vote of the selectboard. Before Act 162, only a vote of the entire town would allow an Australian ballot to be substituted for a floor vote. Thus, selectboards may decide that votes on municipal budgets that have normally been taken on the floor at town meeting should be taken by Australian ballot instead, permitting those who cast absentee ballots to vote on such measures.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns has advised municipal officials that any town that wishes to continue with a floor meeting for 2021 must do so in compliance with the relevant health and safety guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Vermont state officials. That guidance currently provides that in-person gatherings are limited to a maximum of 75 people indoors and 150 people outdoors, with mask-wearing and social distancing required.
If small towns have a hall that is large enough to maintain social distancing, they could continue with a traditional town meeting in March 2021. Larger towns will have to consider alternatives such as postponing town meeting from March to a date in the spring when an outdoor, socially-distanced meeting could be held, or holding an online town meeting.
Brattleboro, one of the largest towns in the state, which uses the representative town meeting system, held an online meeting in September, to replace a meeting that was scheduled for March 22 and then postponed because of COVID-19. The Brattleboro meeting ended up being a 13-hour marathon, with the first 90 minutes taken up by explaining and resolving technical issues on Zoom, many of them related to verifying participants’ identities, and then spending two hours debating how much to pay the selectboard members.
Author’s note: I wrote this column prior to Election Day. I will provide analysis of the election results in the Nov. 19 issue of the Independent.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College. 

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