A Citizen’s Guide To
Vermont Town Meeting
Revised July 2008
of Town Meeting Day
The first town
meeting in America was in Massachusetts in 1633, but the practice of
direct democracy dates back to around 400 B.C. in Athens of ancient
Greece. Unlike town meetings today, in ancient Greece women, children
and slaves could not vote, and meetings required the presence of at
least 6,000 citizens!
meeting is a tradition dating back to before there was a Vermont. The
first town meeting was held in Bennington in 1762, 15 years before
Vermont was created.
In the late
1700s, as today, town citizens in Vermont held meetings so that they
could address the problems and issues they faced collectively. Popular
matters of legislation in earlier town meetings included whether or not
to let pigs run free or whether smallpox vaccinations should be allowed
in the town (some thought vaccinations were dangerous). Voters also
decided what goods or labor could be used as payment for taxes.
also served a social function (as it does today.) It brings people
together who might not otherwise know each other. This can strengthen
social ties within a town and help people work together to tackle
What is Town
On the first
Tuesday of March most Vermont towns hold a meeting to elect local
officials, approve a budget for the following year, and conduct other
local business. Vermont town meetings (with one exception) are the
practice of direct democracy. That is, eligible citizens of the town may
vote on specific issues that are announced through a warning.
town meeting warning tells us when and where town meeting
will be held, and it lists all of the articles (topics) that are
going to be discussed and voted on at the meeting. The warning must be
posted at least 30 days before the meeting.
Voting At Town
Towns can vote
in two different ways at March Town Meeting – by “floor meeting” or by
“Australian Ballot.” Most towns use a combination of both voting
meeting” is what we generally picture a Vermont Town Meeting to be like
– it is when people gather together at a public meeting place like the
town hall or local school to discuss and vote on issues. Floor meetings
can last a few hours – or they can go all day. The length of the
meeting depends on how many articles are on the warning and how much
discussion there is over the issues raised by the articles.
Ballot” voting takes only a few minutes. It takes place at a polling
place where voters mark a secret ballot which is counted when the polls
close. This is how we cast our ballots at the general election in
November. Town Boards of Civil Authority determine when the polls open
in the morning (between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. and all polls must
close at 7:00 p.m.
Most towns use
a combination of Australian Ballot voting and a floor meeting. In 2008,
approximately 15 towns conducted all of the town meeting business using
Australian ballot voting, 61 decided all of their business by floor
vote and 170 towns used a combination of both.
At a floor
meeting there are no representatives (except in Brattleboro, which uses
a system of representative democracy for its town meeting). Citizens
speak directly for themselves, seeking to clarify or amend items to be
voted, or to persuade those present on whether or not to vote for a
Vermont law makes town meeting a holiday for
employees of state government. The law also gives an employee the
right to take unpaid leave from work to attend his or her annual town
meeting, subject to the essential operation of the business or
government. An employee must give the employer at least seven days
notice if he or she wants to take advantage of this right to attend town
meeting. Students who are over 18 also have the right to attend
town meeting, unless the student is in state custody at a secure
facility. These students may not be treated as truants for missing
school to attend town meetings. 21 V.S.A.§472b.
can affect turnout at town meeting. For example, in 2001 there was a big
blizzard. That year many towns postponed their meetings. Towns that went
ahead with their meeting had very few people attending. Also, because
many of Vermont’s schools are not in session the week preceding town
meeting, voters who are parents of school children may be away on
A small percentage
of Vermont’s towns hold their meeting on Saturday. Many people were
surprised to discover that turnout for Town Meeting did not increase
with Saturday meetings.
What Happens on
Town Meeting Day?
Over the past
200 years little has changed about what actually happens at town
meeting. The meeting begins with each town electing a moderator
who runs the town meeting. The town clerk keeps minutes of the
discussion and records the votes.
begins its meetings in its own way. After the moderator “calls the
meeting to order” (by banging the gavel and asking everyone to quiet
down so the meeting can start), many towns begin with the Pledge of
Allegiance. Some introduce the selectboard or school board, some thank
the volunteers who are providing food or displays at the meeting, some
welcome and recognize the oldest or newest members of the community, and
some simply get down to the business of the day.
moderator’s job is to ensure that the meeting is orderly and fair.
He or she calls for votes on each item of business and announces the
decisions of the voters. The moderator must also interpret and apply
rules governing how the discussion and votes proceed.
begins the work of the meeting by announcing the first article listed in
the warning. After an article is voted on, the moderator announces the
next article listed in the warning. Unless the voters decide to pass
over an article or rearrange the order of the articles, the meeting will
address each article in turn, from the first to the last, until they are
requires that the moderator use a very formal procedure to run the
meeting called Robert's Rules of Order. Robert's Rules of Order
sets specific rules for the meeting to help the moderator keep order and
ensure that the meeting is fair. These rules are published in a small
book that can be referred to during the meeting if necessary.
Procedure Using Robert’s Rules of Order
Moderator reads the article: “Shall the Town give $2000 to the ice
rink for their youth hockey program?”
b) A voter
raises his or her hand to be recognized (called on). The
moderator recognizes the voter and the voter stands up and makes a
motion to adopt the article: “I move the article.”
moderator asks if there is a “second to the motion” (another voter who
wants to discuss and vote on the article): “Do we have a second to
d) A second
voter “seconds” the motion: “I second the motion.” If there is no
second, the article is “passed over” (not discussed or voted on.)
e) After the
“second”, the moderator asks for any discussion on the motion: “Would
anyone like to begin discussion on the motion?”
raise their hands to be recognized by the moderator. When a person is
called on, he or she speaks to the moderator. Voters may make statements
in support of or against the proposal. This discussion is called
debating the motion. At any time, a voter can move to close the
A motion to
cut off debate needs a two-thirds majority to pass. The moderator
ensures that everyone who wants to speak has a turn before anyone is
allowed to speak a second time. This prevents the debate from getting
personal, and makes sure everyone has an equal opportunity to
g) A voter may
move to amend the article: “I move to amend the article by reducing
the proposed amount to $1500.” An amendment can be rejected by the
moderator (ruled “out of order”) if it is not germane
(relevant) or if it is hostile to (against) the article. For
example, an amendment that proposes to take the $2,000 for the ice rink
and use it instead for repairs on the town pool would be rejected as
must be germane because voters can only make decisions about topics that
were included in the town meeting warning. For that reason amendments
cannot propose an action that was not warned.
h) After an
amendment is made, the moderator asks for a second, and if there is one,
the moderator will see if people want to discuss the amendment. At the
end of discussion there will be a vote, first on the amendment, and
then, if discussion is complete, there will be a vote on the original
motion, as amended.
article on the warning can be amended only twice. The votes go in
j) There are
three ways for the town meeting to vote on an article:
1. For a “Voice vote”, the
moderator will say “All in favor indicate by saying Yea.”
followed by “All against signify by saying Nay.”
2. If the moderator cannot tell the
outcome of the voice vote he or she can ask for a “hand count”: “All
in favor of the motion, please raise your hand.”
3. If seven voters move to
“divide the assembly”, the motion is voted by “paper ballot”: “I
move to divide the assembly.” The moderator asks “Are there six
more voters who ‘second’ this motion?” If so, paper is passed out to
all voters and they indicate their vote by writing yes or no. The votes
are usually counted by the clerk and board of civil authority
(local officials who help run the election) and are then reported to the
which voting method is used, a voter must be present to vote at town
meeting. A person cannot go home early and ask a friend or family member
to cast his vote for him.
k) After the
vote is announced, the moderator moves to the next article on the agenda
by reading it to the assembly. If a voter interrupts this reading by
moving to reconsider the prior vote, the moderator must stop his reading
and ask if there is a second to the motion to reconsider. The meeting
may only reconsider a vote once before going to the next item on the
voters may participate in town meeting.
that non-voters (people who live in other towns, young people or people
who live in town but who are not registered to vote) do not have a right
to speak at town meeting. Of course, non-voters may never vote at Town
Meeting. The meeting may vote to allow a non-voter to speak at town
meeting. To do this, the voters must pass a motion to allow the
individual to “address the assembly.” This motion must pass by a
two-thirds majority vote.
There is a
well-known story about a governor who visited one of Vermont’s town
meetings and asked permission to address the assembly. The town was
unhappy about some piece of legislation the governor had supported and
as a result, the vote to permit her to speak to the meeting initially
failed. After some debate, a motion to reconsider was passed and the
governor was allowed to address the meeting.
The Business of
meeting voters hear and approve of reports from town officers, they
elect new officials, and review and approve a budget for the town.)
Voters also decide whether to raise money from taxes to give to groups
that serve the town, like a youth center, a homeless shelter or a
transportation program for the elderly. Some communities also vote on
the school budget (at a school district meeting warned for the same day
as town meeting).
Most items on
the warning for town meeting are required by Vermont law, but some
articles are added by the selectboard (the board of three to five people
who are elected to run the town) so that the board can get feedback or
approval from the citizens on an issue facing the town. Other articles
can be added by local officials or by citizens who bring in a petition
signed by five percent of the registered voters of the town.
discuss social issues facing the state or the country like whether to
ban genetically engineered seeds, whether to close Vermont’s nuclear
power plant or whether the country should to go to war. These articles
are usually added to the Town Meeting warning by voters who bring a
petition to the selectboard, but occasionally a selectboard will agree
to put the articles on the warning without a petition.
petitioned article must be included in the warning – the topic for
discussion must be an issue that the voters have the power to decide.
selectboard asked the voters to decide where the new town hall should be
built. This was an issue the selectboard could have decided on its own –
but it preferred to let the townspeople help make such an important
is the amount of money spent to support the town government. It pays
for town buildings, roads, town employees, the town library, etc . . .
The budget is paid for by taxing the property owned by individuals and
businesses in the town.
requires voters to elect a variety of officials at town meeting. Some
are elected to serve for one year. Others are elected to serve for as
long as a three-year term.
requires local officials to be elected by paper ballot (unless they are
elected by Australian Ballot). Towns that elect officers at a
floor meeting nominate candidates during the meeting (a voter will
nominate the candidate who can then accept or decline to run.)
Once nominations are closed, paper
is passed out and voters write out their preference. If no candidate
receives a majority vote the moderator will ask voters to vote again.
If no candidate receives a majority of the votes by the third
ballot, the moderator eliminates the candidate with the least votes and
repeats the procedure until someone receives a majority of the votes. 17
If there is
only one person nominated for a position, a voter can move to direct the
clerk to cast a single ballot in favor of the person nominated. This
saves time and paper!
In towns that
vote by Australian Ballot candidates the person who receives the most
votes wins (even if it is a plurality of votes rather than a majority.)
Towns that elect officers by Australian Ballot require candidates to
submit a nominating petition signed by 30 voters or one percent of the checklist
– whichever is less. The petition must clearly indicate the
office and term length on the petition prior to circulating it for
signatures. 17 V.S.A. §2681(b). The nominating petition must be filed
with the municipal clerk no later than 5:00 p.m. on the sixth Monday
preceding the day of the election.
In many towns
it is difficult to find people willing to run for every town office. If
no one is elected at town meeting, the office is “vacant”.
The selectboard must appoint someone to fill the vacancy.
local officials who are elected at Town Meeting:
– Runs the annual town meeting and any special meetings of the town held
during the year.
– A board of three to
five people who run the town. They implement decisions made at town
meeting. (In cities, voters elect a city council and mayor instead.)
– Keeps land
records and records of marriages, births and deaths and runs the
-- Oversees the town’s
finances, pays bills and balances the accounts.
– Decides the value of land and buildings in the town. (Properties that
have a higher value pay a larger tax.)
– Reports on whether the town is handling and spending its money
correctly. The auditor’s report is discussed at town meeting.
have adopted the Australian Ballot system of voting for at least
some of the articles at town meeting. We also run our state elections
using Australian Ballot.
Ballot is a secret ballot. Under this system of voting, polls are open
from at least 10:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. and voters can show up at any
time to vote by marking a printed ballot. Australian Ballot Voting was
adopted in Vermont in 1892. It was the system of voting that was being
used at that time in Australia.
In contrast to
floor voting at a traditional town meeting, the Australian Ballot allows
people to vote quickly and at a time that is convenient for them. This
system also allows a person who is sick or out of town, or who prefers
not to come to the polls on Election Day, to vote early or vote by mail
by an absentee ballot. Ballots are delivered to sick or disabled
voters. At a traditional town meeting you have to be present to vote –
if you are sick or at work you miss out. It is not surprising that towns
that use the Australian Ballot generally have much higher voter
participation rates than those that do not.
A town must
vote to use the Australian Ballot system. Most towns choose to vote on
some topics this way and vote others at the traditional meeting. The law
also requires certain votes be by Australian Ballot – such as votes on
whether to borrow money for over ten years to build a new town building.
Most towns use Australian Ballot to elect town officers. In contrast to
traditional town meeting, where articles are routinely amended, the
Australian Ballot system requires voters to vote yes or no to an
Australian Ballot voting, a warned article calling for the town to spend
up to $180,000 for a new fire truck lets voters either accept or reject
the proposal. If a voter thinks the selectboard is asking them to pay
too much for the truck, all the voter can do is vote no – the voter
cannot write in an alternative proposal.
If the article
is rejected, the selectboard can choose to not buy the truck or it can
call a second vote at some later date, proposing a smaller amount to be
spent for the truck. In contrast, at a traditional town meeting any voter
may suggest amending the article to allow the town to spend less for the
truck. It can all be done at the same meeting – with no need to call for
a second vote.
The Law: Annual
meeting of the legal voters of each town shall be held annually on the
first Tuesday of March for the election of officers and the transaction
of other business, and it may be adjourned to another date. When a town
fails to hold an annual meeting, a warning for a subsequent meeting
shall be issued immediately, and at that meeting all the officers
required by law may be elected and its business transacted.
a town so votes, it may thereafter start its annual meeting on any of
the three days immediately preceding the first Tuesday in March at such
time as it elects and may transact at that time any business not
involving voting by Australian ballot or voting required by law to be by
ballot and to be held on the first Tuesday in March. A meeting so
started shall be adjourned until the first Tuesday in March.
Notwithstanding section 2508 of this title
(prohibiting campaigning in a polling place), public discussion
of ballot issues and all other issues appearing in the warning, other
than election of candidates, shall be permitted on that day. 17
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