Shrewsbury to reconsider Australian ballot
By Gordon Dritschilo
STAFF WRITER | February 14,2013
SHREWSBURY — Trish Norton says she thinks it is time for Shrewsbury to bring back old-style floor meetings.
“I remember when we had the traditional meeting, high school students would come, see and get a chance to participate in the democratic process,” the local resident said Wednesday. “Everyone gets to be a legislator for a day. I can’t believe people were willing to give that up.”
Norton, who led a petition drive to get the change on the March town meeting ballot, said Shrewsbury switched to Australian ballot voting in the early 1990s and that there had been “half-hearted” pushes for a change back over the years.
This year, Norton said a core group of about a dozen people collected more than 60 signatures — they needed 47, or 5 percent of registered voters — to get the proposal on the ballot for the town and the school district.
The ballot article would do away with Australian ballot for “all public questions.”
“The group that was most vocal about wanting to get rid of (the floor meeting) have kind of passed on,” Norton said. “There are a lot of younger people in town who don’t know what the difference was.”
The difference, as far as Norton is concerned, is massive.
“It’s a much better form of democracy,” she said of the floor meeting. “People voting on an issue have to listen to the discussion on the issue. ... It’s also a very meaningful way for townspeople to communicate with each other. I think it’s a tragedy to give up our traditional town meeting. ... It has worked very well for a couple hundred years.”
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns only has partial data on the subject, but executive director Steven Jeffrey said 71 of the towns that responded to this year’s municipal census used floor meetings for the municipal budget while 43 used it for the school budget.
“Everybody loves to talk about trucks,” Jeffrey said. “They’ll pass a $5 million school budget in five minutes but they’ll spend two hours discussing whether they should have a bucket loader or something different.”
While Tinmouth voted last year to return to floor votes for money articles, Jeffrey said he could not think of any other towns that have switched back after going to Australian ballot.
Town Clerk Mark Goodwin said Shrewsbury’s voter turnout is typically between 30 and 35 percent.
“At the presidential election we had 38 percent,” he said. “Ten to 15 percent of those are absentee.”
Norton rejected an argument, frequently made by supporters of Australian ballot, that floor votes disenfranchise people who would otherwise vote absentee. She said Vermont law requires employees be given the day off to attend a floor meeting if they give seven days notice. She added that towns have the option of holding the meeting on the weekend.
“I do not buy the argument that people are not willing to sit in a meeting for a few hours,” she said. “People sit in front of their TV for much longer.”
She also noted that transportation technology makes it much easier to get people to town meetings than it was when the tradition began.
“If elderly people got there by horse and buggy, they can get there now,” she said.