Essex explores voting possibilities and civic engagement

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Essex residents of all ages, including concerned citizens and elected officials from inside and outside the Village of Essex Junction, turned out at Essex High School on Nov. 8 for “Dine & Discuss: Essex Democracy and You,” a forum about how the Essex community votes and how to increase citizen participation.

In lively small-group discussions, about 60 people worked together to discuss the opportunities and challenges presented by the current voting methods used by both the Village and the Town, explore possible new methods, and brainstorm how to improve overall public engagement.

The forum was hosted by the Essex Governance Group (EGG), a project supported by the Town of Essex, Heart & Soul of Essex, and the Orton Family Foundation.

The forum was the next step in a six-month process that was initiated in the summer, when Budget to Ballot (B2B) — a group of residents concerned about low turnout at Town and Village annual meetings — approached the Town Selectboard and Village Trustees about moving budget approval from the traditional Town/Village Meeting format to Australian ballot (ballot-box voting).

The median voter turnout at Town Meeting since 2005 is 1.5 percent of registered voters (it’s 1.9 percent for Village Meeting). Median voter turnout for Australian ballot voting after Town Meeting during this same period was 8.9 percent (8.3 percent for the Village).

Both the Selectboard and the Trustees agreed that the issues raised by B2B were important, and that’s when Heart & Soul of Essex was brought on board. During Essex’s two-year Heart & Soul community planning process, “Community Connections” emerged as one of six core values of Essex, and Heart and Soul has extensive experience convening community conversations. Now coming together, along with other interested citizens, as the Essex Governance Group, the group’s collective goal was to research and analyze residents’ feelings and practices around voting and public engagement, research voting methods used in other communities, and explore additional ways to improve citizen participation.

After a series of meetings to determine the scope of the project and the voting methods to be researched, the group issued an online survey during October. Over 450 residents of Essex Town and Village participated in the survey, and provided a great deal of information about current voting and civic engagement.

At the Saturday Dine & Discuss event, EGG members shared and discussed the results of the community survey. Led by facilitators Susan Clark and Susan McCormack, the group learned about current governance in the Town and the Village, and then spent time weighing the benefits and challenges of four different voting methods: Town Meeting and Australian Ballot, which are currently in use in Essex; Representative Town Meeting, which is used in Brattleboro and in Massachusetts; and a Meeting-Ballot Hybrid approach used in New Hampshire called SB2.

After working in small, lively groups, the participants came together and shared their favorite ideas for encouraging more citizen participation in local voting. Based on the survey results, they also brainstormed ways to build on Essex’s high level of community mindedness, and ways to increase transparency in municipal government.

In the coming weeks the group will compile and analyze the large amount of feedback residents provided at the forum. The survey data, forum feedback, and research on various voting methods will be included in a report the group will submit to the Selectboard, Village Trustees, and public at the end of the year. In that report the group will make recommendations for how both municipalities can increase citizen participation and transparency, as well as specific recommendations for organizing the Town and Village’s voting opportunities for maximum citizen participation.

To wrap up the Forum, Town Selectboard Chair Max Levy led the presentation of raffle prizes generously donated by local businesses in town to encourage citizen participation in the survey and forum. Participating businesses included Essex Cinema, Dunkin Donuts, Phoenix Books, Gonzo’s, Sam’s Scoop Shop, and Rex’s Outrageous Chocolates.

The final report is available at www.heartandsoulofessex.org.

— Submitted by Elaine Sopchak