Town Meeting Day 2021: Voter turnout rose, but concerns about participation

“I Voted” stickers awaited voters who cast ballots at Essex High School on Town Meeting Day, March 2. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A University of Vermont review of 50 towns found that voter turnout rose 30% on average from 2019 to 2021, suggesting that mail-in ballots and Australian balloting increased voter participation.

But the researchers also found that attendance in communities’ virtual information sessions were far lower than in-person town meeting votes, raising questions about the upsides and downsides of the move toward a new system.

A team of student researchers collected data on turnout and participation as part of their news reporting for Town Meeting Day. The team chose to focus on towns with fewer than 2,500 people to see the effects of the pandemic-related changes on Vermont’s smallest towns, said Emily Anderson, the lead researcher for the project.

Voter turnout in both years studied was fairly low overall, but it rose from 18% in 2019 to 26% in 2021, according to the analysis. Six towns had lower voter turnout, but the rest had increased turnout, which varied from a 0.36% increase to more than 200%. 

“One of the theories is that as [fewer] people are going to town meeting over time, maybe more people are voting by Australian ballot, because it's a lower threshold,” said Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont. “There is more of a cultural acceptance to voting by mail.”

The data corresponds with findings of increased turnout in the 2020 presidential race, the first year that Vermont mailed ballots to every voter in the state. 

The student researchers also collected data on how many people attended virtual information sessions, held as a stand-in for the in-person debate and discussion that normally occur on Town Meeting Day. The virtual sessions had significantly less participation than the in-person meetings.

While virtual sessions have the potential to be more accessible, the researchers found that some of the meeting details were hard to find. “There were some towns where it was very clear on their website, and there were some towns where it was really hard to find the information,” Anderson said.

There were internet issues during the meetings, as well. “I did notice across a couple of town meetings I attended, there were definitely some participants who were just struggling to be able to use Zoom to ask the question or something like that,” she said.

When thinking about the future of Town Meeting Day, Watts said “we need to make sure it’s accessible to as many people as possible.”

“If we really rethink town meetings, there might be some way to do some kind of hybrid,” between virtual and in-person formats, he said.

But some of the meeting participants themselves seemed to miss the old format. “I heard a lot of people expressing that they really hope that next year, everything will be back to normal to be able to do town meetings in person,” Anderson said.

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