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Vermont town meetings carry on, albeit without tradition

Published: Mar. 2, 2021 at 5:50 PM EST
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CALAIS, Vt. (WCAX) - Town Meeting Day in Vermont Tuesday came with few “traditional” meetings. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, most of Vermont’s 240 municipalities carried on with some form of in-person and vote-by-mail elections.

Election officials we spoke with said that after this year’s successful primary and general elections Town Meeting Day was an easy transition.

In Essex, it’s normal to hit the polls on Town Meeting Day, and a global pandemic wasn’t going to stop some voters. “I don’t see the need to vote by mail when I can be here and do it like we have always done it,” said Bill Galdy.

Whether by mail or in-person, Essex voters faced important decisions, including a proposed merger between the town and village. Officials say having everything on the ballot led to a strong turnout. “Probably unprecedented turnout for Town Meeting. This is the first time we have been able to vote on the budget by Australian ballot. Normally, that happens on the Monday night meeting,” said John Sonnick, the presiding officer of elections.

In Panton, the day began with a slow in-person turnout, but Town Clerk Maggie McCormick says they nearly hit their average turnout just with ballots dropped off before Tuesday.

Over in Moretown, where early ballots were also strong, voters on Tuesday didn’t even have to leave their car. “We are doing a drive-thru this year -- keep people safe,” said Town Clerk Cherilyn Brown, who was among officials braving the single-digit temperatures in an effort to keep voters safe.

“It was different. I mean, I knew that’s what the experience would be like -- definitely a little different, but these are different times doing what we can to keep everybody safe,” said local voter Danielle Kent.

The absence of a traditional floor meeting was noticeable in Calais. “It couldn’t be more different,” said Town Clerk Judy Robert.

“It was always entertaining. There was always a few curmudgeonly characters that kept everyone on their toes,” said voter Steve Owens.

But like most towns, it was a slow day at the polls with many people returning their ballots that were mailed to them. Owens was among those looking forward to returning to the Vermont Town Meeting Day tradition next year. “You can make amendments from the floor, you can change things, so it’s a little bit unfortunate. It takes the flexibility out of the political process,” he said.

“I think people will be really ready to get back in-person and have that lively Vermont democracy that we are used to,” added Robert.

It may not be the democracy they were used to, but the ballot process doesn’t appear to have kept any voters from participating.

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