EAST MONTPELIER — The Washington Central School Board has decided ballots will be like opinions in the run-up to Town Meeting Day: everyone will have one.
Select Boards in at least three of the district’s five towns voted in domino-like fashion earlier this week to take the state up on its just-approved offer to cover the cost of mailing ballots to every active registered voters in their communities.
The Calais board made that decision Monday night and their counterparts in East Montpelier and Middlesex followed suit during their own virtual meetings on Tuesday.
Worcester Town Clerk Katie Winkeljohn said Thursday the Select Board there has agreed to send ballots to all registered voters, though, it isn’t clear when that decision was made.
It is clear the local boards need to vote to take advantage of a provision included in just-passed legislation Gov. Phil Scott signed into law on Tuesday.
Will Senning, director of elections with the Secretary of State’s Office, made that clear in a Thursday morning email exchange with Berlin Town Clerk Rosemary Morse.
Morse wrote Senning after learning the Washington Central School Board voted unanimously at its Wednesday night meeting to require ballots be sent to every registered voter in the district, with an offer to cover any associated expenses.
The five-town district includes Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier Middlesex and Worcester and while select boards in three — and likely four — of those towns are opting to mail ballots to all voters whether they requested them or not, Morse wondered whether she should follow suit?
Senning’s short answer was “no” — not unless the Select Board, which previously agreed to send out postcards encouraging voters to request absentee ballots for the Town Meeting Day elections, had a change of heart.
Morse, like her Washington Central counterparts, must mail the school ballots to all registered voters in Berlin, but, absent, select board action, only voters who request them would receive ballots for the municipal elections.
“Logic tells me both (town and school) ballots ought to go to all, but I can’t do it without board approval,” she said.
The Berlin Select Board isn’t compelled to change its mind and may not be interested in further confusing voters by following up a postcard asking voters to request an absentee ballot by sending a ballot most of the more than 1,800 voters in Berlin haven’t asked for.
Through Thursday Morse had received fewer than 400 requests from voters, who will get both town and school ballots regardless of what the Select Board does. It’s the other 1,400 voters that are something of a question mark.
Based on the School Board’s action Wednesday night, all will automatically receive the school ballot, but would either have to request an early ballot from the town or show up on March 2 to vote in person.
Clerks in the other four towns — including Winkeljohn — are planning to send both town and school ballots to all voters in their communities.
“This could be a game-changer,” Middlesex Town Clerk Sarah Merriman said Thursday, suggesting the increased participation associated with the practice could yield some unpredictable results.
That is particularly true in towns like Middlesex, which typically conduct a good bit of their business — including approving the municipal budget — on the floor of open town meetings.
Every town in Washington Central — and most in central Vermont — have canceled their traditional town meetings in favor of a one-time shift to Australian ballot voting due to concerns associated with COVID-19.
That’s a big change on its own, but putting the Australian ballot on steroids by sending every voter a ballot will lay waste to chronic complaint about what historians are fond of describing as “Vermont’s annual exercise in participatory democracy.”
“There’s been a long-standing concern that only certain people show up for town meeting,” Merriman said.
In Middlesex the one-year break could literally change the complexion, as well as the length, of next year’s town meeting.
A petitioned article calls for the future use of Australian ballot to decide all requests for taxpayer funding except the municipal budget.
Topping that list this year is the Select Board’s request to finance the purchase of a new $290,000 grader over 15 years.
There are many other requests, which range from $100 for Green Up Vermont to $29,807 for the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier. The library’s request is a standalone article and will be voted separately, while the money for Green Up Vermont is part of a package of modest requests totaling $5,017 that will pass or fail together.
The experiment could backfire because Town Meeting Day voters are typically more tuned into local affairs and — like them or not — familiar with past spending patterns.
Many voters across the five-town district will be seeing Washington Central’s budget request for the first time. How they react to the $35 million figure is anybody’s guess, but most won’t know the number they’re looking it is actually $450,000 less than the budget that was approved last March.