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The value of one informed vote

03/03/03 12:00AM By David Moats
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(Host) Commentator David Moats reflects on Town Meeting and what it takes to be an informed voter.

(Moats) Democracy is not mathematics. Each person has one vote, and every vote equals every other vote. But it matters how we vote, and that's what makes town meeting unique.

In recent years, more and more towns have resorted to ballot voting to conduct their most important business. Typically, a few interested people show up the night before for an informational meeting, then on Tuesday a larger number vote by ballot to adopt budgets and elect officials. Ballot voting allows more people to vote. A lot of people can't make it to town meeting, but they can get to the polls. Town meeting, people say, is for the town's elite. Letting the people make their decisions at the ballot box is more democratic.

If that's so, then count me as an elitist. I can go by my own experience. I know that when I fail to make it to the informational meeting, as most people do, and I turn up on Tuesday to cast my ballot, I'm often voting in the dark. What guides me are my biases and any little scraps of information I might have heard.

Now, don't me wrong. I value my biases as much as anyone else. But when I don't know what I'm doing, I value my own vote less. My vote still counts as much as any other vote, and it should. But when I vote in ignorance, I feel a little fraudulent.

When people show up to vote at town meeting, they hear the arguments. They may even take part in the arguments. They get a sense of what their town officials and their neighbors believe. They become part of their community, and voting becomes less an act of individual bias and more an act of community participation. Each vote still counts as one, but I always value my own vote more when I know what I'm doing.

It's true, town business is carried out by that small group who -actually take an interest in town affairs. That's why some people say town meeting is elitist. But anyone can take an interest in town affairs. Anyone can speak out. In fact, if you are willing to raise your hand, you are likely to be appointed to three or four committees before you know it.

Town meeting is a model of democracy because it fosters participation, real participation, not just the casting of a ballot. Places where business is conducted by ballot are more democratic in one way and less democratic in another.

California decides questions by referendum, a method introduced to bring greater democracy to state politics. The result is elections where millions of people vote yes or no on issues after interest groups spend millions of dollars spewing political ads all over television.

I'm not sure whether the voter casting a ballot in California feels more powerful or less than the voter in Vermont, who has to make his way to the town hall and stand before his neighbors to speak his mind.

I know which I prefer. Each vote counts as one in both states. But in Vermont people participate more than mathematically. Their towns are their own when they take part in town meeting.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

Related link:
VPR's Town Meeting Day coverage in available online.
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