Will Windham lose far more than it gains with Australian-ballot Town Meetings?

Town Meeting is more than checking a box on a ballot. It’s discussion and compromise on the floor, input from nonvoting guests, and a delicious potluck lunch.

WINDHAM — On Wednesday, Dec. 18, the Town of Windham will hold a Special Town Meeting at 6 p.m. to decide whether to replace our traditional town meeting with the Australian ballot.

This change would allow residents who cannot attend town meeting to vote on town officials, budgets, and other proposed matters.

We believe, however, that the town's people would give up far more than they would gain from this change.

With the Australian ballot, the Selectboard or other small groups would determine what would be proposed and ballots would be printed accordingly. An informational meeting would explain whatever is on the ballots, followed on another day by votes being cast, yea or nay.

Voters would have no opportunity to amend a proposal. If they voted a budget down, for example, a new budget would be prepared, and another vote on that would have to be warned, new ballots printed, another informational meeting held, and another vote taken. This process would continue until the budget was passed.

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Windham is a small town with only around 320 voters on our rolls. Typically, we have about 100 voters at Town Meeting. Like many small towns, we have a higher percentage of voters who cast ballots at Town Meeting than the percentage of voters in larger towns who cast Australian ballots. The smallness of our population makes each of our votes matter more, and Town Meeting offers more to us than checking our preferences on a ballot.

Windham's Town Meetings always include lively discussions, and nearly every year we amend proposed articles from the floor. This can take time, but much less so than all the steps necessary to tweak a budget or other proposed article using the proposed Australian-ballot method.

More importantly, our Town Meeting fosters democracy in action with the give and take of 100 people amending a proposal to make it acceptable to a majority. Often, contentious proposals pass unanimously once they are discussed and amended. What's more, we always learn about our town and our neighbors.

Nearly half the homes in Windham are owned by second-home owners, and although they cannot vote, their voices are welcomed. Registered voters in town have to agree to let non-voters speak, and we always do. We also have special speakers every year at Annual Town Meeting, including Matt Treiber and Carolyn Partridge, our state representatives, who answer our questions and bring us up to date about actions in Montpelier.

In addition to all the good work that takes place at Windham's Annual Town Meeting, the highlight of the day is our potluck lunch. Somewhere between noon and 1 p.m., the meeting is put on hold, and another kind of teamwork begins.

The members of the Windham Community Organization disappear into the kitchen to set up the feast. Attendees move their chairs aside while others haul out long tables for dining.

Within a few minutes, the meeting room is transformed into a dining room. All line up to fill their plates, then sit down to enjoy the company of neighbors. Sometimes we chat with folks we see only once a year at Town Meeting. The lunch is a treasured time and a longstanding tradition.

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Much would be lost if Windham adopts the Australian ballot - broad participation in the town's decision-making, thoughtful discussion and amendments to proposed articles, insights from special speakers and nonvoters, a fabulous lunch with neighbors, and a satisfying sense of history, knowing that residents have made their decisions this way for more than 200 years.

Because so much would be lost, we urge Windham voters to attend the meeting on Dec. 18 and vote “no” on the proposed change.

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