Lots to like about town meetings
It’s possible that we are just a bit old-fashioned, but after attending a town meeting, we can’t help but wonder why so many towns have abandoned it – and school district meetings – in favor of Senate Bill 2 ballot voting on everything. Oh, we know the argument, and don’t dispute it: More people will participate in ballot voting, because it takes only minutes, than will come to a town meeting, which takes hours and, in some cases in the old days, meetings could go over two days or nights.
And, yes, debate could become raucous and nerves could fray and insults could be hurled, all of which means a town meeting would fit right into the current political climate.
But we get it: The more people who vote, the more democratic the process, at least theoretically. Why theoretically? Because too many of us still knee-jerk vote – i.e., "It’s my party and I’ll vote how they tell me …" New Hampshire abolished the thoughtless straight-ticket voting in 2007 – all you needed to do was pull a party lever, and viola! You chose all the candidates from that party – but there are still many of us who look only at party labels. Once upon a time, that made at least a little sense. Once upon a time, we could say with some assurance that our parties came very close to a set of mores to which we subscribed, but we are not sure that is true any longer. All one has to do is look at the splintering of the national Republican Party to see that we might have to look hither, yither and yon to find ideas and people to which and to whom we can subscribe.
Indeed, so splintered is the GOP across the nation that such a staunch Republican as Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, is actually open to the idea of a third party should Donald Trump get the Replublican nomination for president. We have an enormous amount of respect for Kristol’s thought processes, although we agree with few of his thoughts, but we wonder if shattering one of our two major parties will accomplish anything. Certainly it would give the presidency to the Democrats, just as Ralph Nader gave it to the Republicans in 2000, and we can’t believe Kristol finds favor with that.
Our point, however, is that people and issues, not parties, should be what voting is about, and people and issues are what we get to see at town and school meetings. Now, even in town meeting towns, officials are elected at the polls, but from year to year at town meeting, we get to see them in action greater than we could see at, say, a selectmen’s meeting. We watch them react to criticism, we listen to how they respond and we remember these things the next time they run. And the issues are discussed, often at length – often at great length. Oh, sure, they are discussed at deliberative sessions, but the discussions are aimed at potential amendment of articles, not heading directly toward a vote. It’s just not the same thing.
No one gets to leap up at a deliberative session and say, "Mr. Moderator, I call the question." And as far as we know, no one sells coffee and doughnuts, either.
Look, we applaud efforts to get more people to vote, but as Jeff Jacoby pointed out in The Boston Globe recently, we have to be a bit careful. He was opining on early voting in some states – Florida, for instance – in which some folks might have cast ballots for Ben Carson before he dropped out of the race for president. What good were those votes when Floridians actually went to the polls?
Ballot voting in New Hampshire certainly attracts more people to decide the fate of budgets, for instance, but it’s only at town meeting where they really get to hear, debate and, immediately, vote. It’s not a bad system.