Open town meetings have a long, storied history in New England, and to this day most Massachusetts towns are still governed in this manner. Because ordinary citizens can air their concerns and vote on municipal issues, these meetings are widely celebrated as the height of democracy in action.
Yet in their current form, open town meetings aren’t as democratic as they seem. To participate in the affairs of their communities, voters must routinely sit through meetings that can last for hours and sometimes stretch over multiple nights. In practice, residents generally can’t vote on the matters at hand — zoning rules, town budgets, and the like — unless they’re present for the entire discussion. For most people, though, time is a scarce and precious commodity. Town meetings ought to adapt accordingly.
Devotees of town meetings argue that attendance at them helps ensure properly educated voting. But in the Internet age, we can surely do better than simply requiring people to sit and listen. We can allow anyone who has relevant statements, data, or links to post them on a town meeting website, which will give voters far easier access to information.
It’s easy to disparage people who are unwilling to attend town meeting as being insufficiently committed to their town. Of course, if towns imposed a $200 fee for voting, we could similarly argue that anyone unwilling to pay the 200 bucks surely doesn’t care enough about local affairs. But people would rightly rebel at being asked to pay for the privilege of voting.
The three or more hours demanded by many town meetings is just as unfair to the time-strapped as a poll tax is to the cash-strapped — and the ranks of the time-strapped doesn’t just include yuppies. What about single parents, or couples who have several children under 6? How feasible is it for them to stay out listening to ponderous speeches until 11 p.m? If one spouse stays home minding the kids, then we’ve disenfranchised half the household.
On the national level, there’s been an outcry against voter identification laws, because they require people to jump over bureaucratic hurdles before they can vote. Yet the time involved in town meetings represents a hurdle of its own. If that barrier is so high that budgets are amended and major rulings are made typically by less than 5 percent of the population — as is common in my own town — then the system is failing.
Making it hard to participate increases the risk that the voters will represent a narrow sliver of the population. That, in turn, affects the kinds of decisions towns make. Economist Jenny Schuetz has compared towns with town meetings with towns with councils and found the town meeting locales were particularly tough on multi-family housing units. But the passage of restrictive zoning rules doesn’t necessarily mean that most town residents support them — just that a majority of those who attend town meeting do.
Lowering the price of participating makes participation broader and typically more representative. While town meetings should continue to provide a forum where ordinary people air their concerns, we should provide an alternative means for citizens to vote on local matters — without requiring them to spend school night after school night listening to every crabgrass Cicero.
Imagine if residents were allowed to deposit ballots the day before or after the meeting. People could still rail against injustices, and urge proposals on selectmen, but their neighbors wouldn’t be disenfranchised just because they have other commitments that they can’t ignore.
We should be proud of our local government, and the town meeting tradition should continue. But we should bring it into the 21st century and make it easier for busy town residents to vote.