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Town Meeting

02/28/02 12:00AM By Frank Bryan

Every March across Vermont attempts are made to substitute secret, paper balloting (the "Australian Ballot") for town meeting. Make no mistake. The Australian ballot is to town meeting what coyotes are to white-tailed deer in deep snow.

There are many reasons why the open, face-to-face, deliberative democracy of town meeting is far superior to the private, no questions asked, quick draw democracy of the voting booth. But instead of going through a list, let me frame the question by example.

The state has plans to reserve an area in the Northeast Kingdom accessible only by foot, no all terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, and the like - a wilderness area set free to return to the wild, and provide a priceless window through which we can see again the way it used to be.

But some argue this wilderness could be enjoyed only by for those able to walk long distances through hills, swamp, and forest. It must, therefore, be made "handicapped accessible" with roads, ATV's, snowmobile trails and so on.

It's a hard question to ask but ask it we must. Should a wilderness be made handicapped accessible?

I say we ought to be able to set aside wilderness areas in spite of the fact that some will be inaccessible to some Vermonters, even though this number will include me (in a few years when my legs finally give out) and I'll weep when the time comes for I've long roamed the deepest forests of the Kingdom.

Likewise, we must, of course, make town meeting accessible to as many as possible. But to all? This fall a soldier in Europe wrote a letter to his small town in Vermont saying that the lack of an Australian ballot, which would allow him to vote by absentee ballot on school budgets, was both undemocratic and unpatriotic.

Yet, if the truth be known the huge majority of those that will not make the sacrifices required to experience a wilderness area or go to a town meeting are not handicapped at all, they are simply inconvenienced. It's easier to ride in on an ATV or to stop by at a voting booth.

In my town of Starksboro we moved our meeting from Tuesday to Saturday in deference to the many working people that have trouble making town meeting on Tuesday. That's good. But still, this very year, we have an attempt to kill our town meeting in Starksboro by placing most Warning articles on an Australian ballot.

Is the act of casting a ballot so sacrosanct that we will sacrifice a precious and profoundly better way of democracy on the alter of a numerical equality that has never been, nor will ever be, fully realized?

We honor and love the soldier who can't get home to town meeting because he is protecting us - and our democracy - of which town meeting is the cornerstone. Which is why, when he finally returns home to participate again in his very own town meeting, I hope we will have protected it for him.

This is Frank Bryan from Starksboro.

--Frank Bryan is a writer and teaches Political Science at the University of Vermont.

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