Democracy and Town Meeting

This post is in two parts. First, Amherst resident Sarah Marshall challenges charter opponents’ claim that Town Meeting provides “more democracy.” Second, Nick Grabbe looks at the March 27 Town Meeting ballot, in which a majority of seats will be uncontested.

“More democracy, not less” is one of the rallying cries of the supporters of Amherst’s current Town Meeting structure. Apparently, they believe that because the charter proposes to replace the 240-member Town Meeting with a 13-member Town Council, democracy will be weakened if the charter passes. I strongly disagree.

If all it takes to have a democratic system is more people, then we should bring back Open Town Meeting, and invite all 21,000 or so Amherst voters to cram into the Middle School auditorium to give their opinions and vote on the many items of town business. Because, after all, that’s a bigger number than 240, so an open meeting would be more democratic. Or, let’s get rid of representative government at the state level, and let 4.5 million . . . you get the picture.

Ridiculous, right? We trade all-citizen participation for representation because of efficiency, time constraints, ability to develop expertise, and other benefits.

There is more to democracy than the size of the body that votes on budgets, land-use issues, and the like. The right to vote for one’s representatives will not be constrained by a new charter. Meaningful choices on the ballot should increase. Here are some other hallmarks of our democratic system: a press free from government interference, freedom to petition one’s elected representatives without fear of reprisal, and freedom of  assembly. None of these are impaired under the proposed charter.

Will people who value their service as Town Meeting members be silenced? No, but they may need to express their opinions by different means. Will Town Meeting members lose their opportunity to influence town decisions and policies? Not if they run for Town Council, offer public comments at meetings, serve on oversight committees and boards, or stay involved in other ways.

Democracy will not wither if the charter is adopted.

* * *

In a democracy, voters should choose the people who represent them. Based on the ballot that voters will face on March 27, Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting system has failed once again to provide meaningful choices.

In six of the 10 precincts, there will be 10 or fewer candidates for eight three-year Town Meeting seats. In Precincts 3 and 4, there will be only four and three candidates respectively, so nine Town Meeting members will be “elected” by write-ins. When voters have minimal choices, they become alienated and less likely to participate in the political system. In Amherst, this has been a problem for a long time.

There are several ways to measure this mockery of democracy. Over the last 10 years, about 70 percent of Town Meeting members have been elected from precincts with 10 or fewer candidates for eight three-year seats. Using a different methodology, over 80 percent of the seats have been uncontested. If you define “contested” as twice as many candidates as seats, that standard was reached only 4 percent of the time from 2008 to 2017.

Some of the most vocal opponents of the charter are Town Meeting members who live in precincts where they don’t have to lift a finger, just sign their names, to be “elected.” Even in the minority of precincts where there are more candidates than seats, voters face a bewildering array of names, usually without any knowledge of their positions on issues, and many just fill in the boxes of the names they recognize.

If voters approve the new charter on March 27, the 13 members of the new Town Council will be chosen by voters who will have meaningful choices of candidates and will know what each stands for before going into the voting booth. That’s what democracy is all about.

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Comments 4

  1. Very well argued on the faulty logic of thinking “more’ is better democracy. It is true there are hard-working, civic-minded members of Town Meeting. But your point about trade-offs is critical. The current system gives precedence to the participation of 240 citizens over other key values in a representative democracy: accountability (through competition and candidates identified by their issues) and deliberation (Town Meeting is plebiscitary in that members vote up-or-down without discussing among themselves and negotiating). Moreover, as you point out, former Town Meeting members are not prevented from participating robustly in other ways. Lastly, town council elections should increase participation for the broader citizenry because candidates will have an incentive to mobilize voters to win their seats. Thanks for your post Sarah!

  2. Congratulations! Your piece very efficiently points out why our current system needs reconsideration.

  3. Well done indeed.

    Further, with respect to participation in elections, I believe that the new Charter will lead to stronger sustained turnout. Three main reasons -1. Ranked Choice Voting, 2. Candidates truly competing by having to say what they stand for, and 3. Simply moving elections to the first Tuesday in November.

  4. I think that there will be increased turnout in the beginning, but I think we should be wary about that being sustained well into the future. There’s really no way to know.

    What ultimately matters is that those residents of the Town who do NOT have 40+ hours PER YEAR to give to Town Meeting or other board/committee service should have a meaningful, crucial voice in the municipal government that rules over them here. They do not have it now, and, since the two school votes in Town Meeting, many more of them now know it.

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