Since the late 1700s, Vermont towns have held town meetings to vote on issues like local officials and municipal budgets. These meetings can be loud and crowded, as residents pack into rows of folding chairs and stand shoulder to shoulder along the wall.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to still be a factor come Town Meeting Day on March 2, and these meetings in public spaces are likely to be risky.
In the years since the first Town Meeting Day, many Vermont towns have transitioned to voting via Australian ballot, or a system of voting in which voters mark their choices on ballots at a polling place.
Essex voted in November to use the Australian ballot system for its annual budget moving forward instead of voting from the floor like had traditionally been done in the past.
How will the informational hearing be conducted differently this year?
According to Act 92, which the Vermont Legislature passed in March 2020, informational hearings, where the items to be voted upon are explained and debated, may be conducted remotely, over Zoom or another virtual meeting platform.
Will Senning, the director of elections and campaign finance for the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, said a hearing must be held within the 10 days preceding the election.
Some towns might fear that if they opt for a virtual hearing, attendance might be low because of residents’ unreliable internet connections or having no internet at all.
“That concern is understood,” Senning said. “It’s a rock in a hard place this year.”
One solution to the problem is that informational hearings are required to have conference call availability.
“It’s not a perfect solution, but you have the remote meeting and then some people can call in on a landline,” Senning said. “That’s another option for people who may not have broadband.”
Essex has decided to use a hybrid model for its informational meeting slated for March 1, at which time voters will hear presentations on the proposed budget and charter for merger. Residents will be able to participate and ask questions through videoconferencing or calling in, but a limited number of voters will also be allowed into Essex High School to attend the meeting in person until capacity restrictions are met.
However, there will no longer be an option for voters to make motions for adjustments to the proposed budget and vote on them from the floor after November's vote to use Australian ballot. Instead, they can virtually attend the Jan. 19 public hearing to ask questions and simply make recommendations to what's proposed.
Essex town officials are also expected to hold public hearings on Feb. 1 and Feb. 16 to field questions and provide information regarding the proposed merger charter that was approved to be on the March ballot at the Jan. 11 selectboard meeting. Additionally, around the same time that ballots are mailed out, the town will be sending out a booklet that explains the merger charter and includes frequently-asked questions; it will also be posted to the town and village's websites, as well as greateressex2020.com.
What if a town uses a combination of a town meeting and Australian ballot?
Some towns, like nearby Georgia and Fairfax, use a combination of a floor vote and Australian ballot.
Georgia votes on its budget by meeting as a large group and raising hands or shouting yes and no. Fairfax also votes on some ballot items this way.
Senning said current Vermont law does not allow floor votes to be conducted virtually. Therefore, these meetings must be held in-person, but must also abide by current health and safety guidelines.
This means no more than 50% of a room’s fire safety capacity may be filled and no more than one person can occupy 100 square feet of space. In total, no more than 75 people can gather together indoors, according to the state's COVID-19 guidance.
Could towns postpone Town Meeting Day until a time when we can gather safely?
Vermont towns are required by law to meet annually on the first Tuesday of March, but on Jan. 12, the Vermont House voted on and passed H.48, a bill that allows towns the move the date of their 2021 annual meeting.
What if I want to vote by mail?
You can request an absentee ballot, or a main-in ballot, by calling the Essex Town Clerk’s office. You can also make a request using the My Voter Page (mvp.vermont.gov) on the Secretary of State’s website.
H.48's passage would also authorize towns to mail ballots to all active, registered voters as they did for the General Election in November 2020.