In a pre-coronavirus world, spring in New England used to mean town meeting. In more than 200 Massachusetts towns, voters gathered publicly to deliberate and decide issues of great importance (such as whether to build a new school) and issues of little importance (such as whether a cat should be allowed outside without a leash).
But this year, because of concerns about COVID-19, that annual rite of spring has been postponed. Here’s hoping it’s consigned forever to the dust heap of history.
Town meeting has its roots in the Puritan church meetings of New England’s early settlers. The first recorded one took place in Dorchester in 1633, more than 140 years before Americans declared independence from Britain. At the time, the town meeting was a revolutionary system of participatory democracy based on the idea that community rules should have the consent of the governed.
In the early days of the New England colonies, town meetings often were held weekly. As populations grew, many towns began to meet once a month. Attendance was mandatory, and those who failed to turn out were fined.
Nowadays, town meeting ordinarily is held annually, and participation is, of course, voluntary. Perhaps not surprisingly, overall attendance rates are abysmally low. In 2020, the majority of New Englanders are no longer farmers who knock off work when the sun goes down. New Englanders work nights, travel on business, and commute long distances, making it difficult to attend early evening meetings near home. Parents with young children often are unable to attend evening meetings without hiring a babysitter, and those with school-age children may have coaching duties, carpools to drive, or other conflicts.
The result is that a small, unrepresentative portion of the electorate ends up making decisions for the entire community. It is governance by might — a system where those with the loudest voices, and the time and the energy to outlast all others, prevail.
Supporters of the town meeting argue that face-to-face gatherings engender civility among neighbors who must listen respectfully to one another’s views. But a system where citizens vote by voice or show of hands also creates incredible social pressure for people to “go-along to get-along” for the sake of neighborhood harmony. This is anything but democratic.
Yet many of the same people who today advocate for online voter registration and extended access to absentee ballots to make state and national elections as simple, quick, and convenient as possible remain hypocritically committed to prolonged, inconvenient town meetings for local decision-making.
Perhaps COVID-19 will change that. Earlier this month, the town administrator of Wellfleet proposed temporarily moving to a mail-in voting system for town meeting. But when the ban on large public gatherings is lifted, will anyone want to return to the days of long, unnecessary meetings?
I, for one, could do without spending consecutive evenings listening to town officials drone on about the budgets and bylaws we elected them to draft. Many working parents could do without having to choose between voting on whether to build a new school and meeting an important client for dinner, picking up the kids from lacrosse practice, visiting a sick relative, or meeting any other demands of 21st-century life.
And now, with the advent of COVID-19, everyone can agree that there is a better, safer way to vote than by gathering in a packed high school gym.
Some people, nostalgic for our colonial past, may mourn the death of town meeting, at the age of 387, from the novel coronavirus. But here’s hoping we can finally — and permanently — move beyond this historical relic, even after we return to some degree of normalcy.
Jennifer C. Braceras is director of Independent Women’s Law Center.