Sidney resident Peter Beckerman addresses the crowd March 27 during the annual Town Meeting at James H. Bean School. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Floor discussions may be a thing of the past at the annual rite of spring — town meetings.

While attendance dwindled at traditional town meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, towns that used secret ballot to vote on annual issues saw an uptick in participation in 2021.

A shift to secret ballot may be on the way for many towns because of its privacy and accessibility.

“Those communities that had to not do town meeting last year and adopt secret ballot, I don’t think it’s a surprise participation rates went up. Just voting is much less time demanding and onerous than a town meeting,” said Mark Brewer, professor of political science at the University of Maine. “From people that I’ve spoken with in many of these smaller communities that still do town meeting, for them, getting in the same location with your fellow community members and talk face to face about community issues is important.”

Rural Maine’s deeply rooted democratic process may be no more evident than in the annual town meetings themselves. There are 487 municipalities in Maine and more than 400 conduct annual town meetings.

At annual town meetings, resident voters gather at a local school, municipal building, or even a parking lot during a pandemic, to vote on a variety of annual budget and policy issues. A warrant listing each topic to be voted on is published before the town meetings. Oftentimes, town governments hold public hearings ahead of an annual town meeting.

At a traditional town meeting, discussion is encouraged. Warrant items don’t have to be simply voted up or down; they can be altered. Votes on individual warrant items are conducted out loud (“yea” and “nay”), by hand, standing or by secret ballot.

Maine Municipal Association spokesperson Eric Conrad said the association uses the phrase “referendum ballot” instead of “secret ballot.” Member communities of the Maine Municipal Association see larger turnouts when the elections are more accessible, but there is a tradeoff.

Voting by secret ballot eliminates others knowing how others vote, eliminating discussion and compromise.

“What’s beautiful about the New England town meeting is that people can talk about issues in front of each other,” Conrad said. “On the other hand, this isn’t 1950 anymore. There aren’t 13 channels on TV and there was no internet back then. People are arguably more busy now. Things have changed and when people are given the opportunity to vote on a ballot in a private setting, people are doing it.”

The pandemic accelerated an already declining attendance at traditional town meetings. Indoor gatherings are limited to 50 people per room during Maine’s state of emergency, although town meetings have more specific rules where more people could fit based on the size of a room. Many towns saw paltry attendance at the annual meetings in 2020 and 2021, but those that opted for meetings done entirely by secret ballot saw marked increases in voter turnout.

Government observers such as Brewer and Amy Fried, chair of the University of Maine’s political science department, note an overall increased interest in politics around the state. The pandemic curbed accessibility, but conducting town meetings via secret ballot is an antidote, Fried said.

“People are just more interested in politics in general, and there’s probably some spillover from national sorts of political action,” Fried said. “It could also partly be that during this pandemic period, people are also looking for other things to do. They’re not going out and watching a hockey game during the winter or doing other things that they want to do.”

FORMATS CHANGE 

To change town meeting to a secret ballot election, a town’s governing body has to vote and adopt a state provision that gives the town select board discretion over making a decision to hold a referendum vote or open town meeting.

Flanked by residents filling out ballots, Belgrade Town Manager Anthony Wilson sanitizes booths as residents finish voting March 20 during the annual Belgrade Town Meeting at Center For All Seasons. The warrant items were voted on by secret ballot instead of by the usual in-person town meeting. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

One of the towns that may have those conversations is Belgrade, Town Manager Anthony Wilson said in an email. In a normal year, an average of 250 voters cast a secret ballot the evening before town meetings and 100 more vote during floor discussions and votes the next day. During its March 20 meeting, Belgrade voters cast 459 ballots in a completely secret ballot town meeting. The 2020 town meeting was delayed by the pandemic and paired with a July primary election where more than 900 ballots were cast on annual town meeting topics.

“It will be an interesting future discussion on how the town conducts town meeting,” Wilson said. “A secret-ballot election garners more participation, which is good, but that foregoes the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with voters, who then may make a more informed vote; that, too, is good. I anticipate the select board will be engaging in that debate later this year.”

In China, the annual town meeting is split into parts. The election of officers occurs in November. The annual business meeting, where the budget is voted on, is held in the spring or summer. In 2020, voters cast 1,006 votes after the annual town business meeting was canceled and the usually lengthy warrant was reduced to a two-page ballot, which was held in conjunction with the July primaries. Just 150 voters cast ballots during a normal town business meeting in 2019. China’s 2021 town business meeting is scheduled for June 8 by secret ballot and a virtual public hearing will be held later this month.

China Town Manager Becky Hapgood said the town’s select board determines how the annual town business meeting vote is conducted. Because of the town’s quorum ordinance, it’s likely secret ballot vote will continue. To open a meeting in China, 4% of the town’s voters need to attend a meeting. This year it would be 128.

“I’m concerned that when COVID goes away and social distancing isn’t  going to be an issue, I think people are going to shy away from big meetings,” Hapgood said. “It’s going to take a long time to get back up to that point where we meet that quorum.”

ROOTED IN TRADITION 

Not all towns are receptive to considering a change to the secret ballot based town meeting. The small Somerset County town of Starks had 52 ballots cast by secret ballot at its 2021 town meeting. The 2020 town meeting, held March 13-14 last year, drew 43 voters. In 2018, 52 Starks residents attended a traditional town meeting.

Starks Town Clerk Jennifer Hebert said having the secret ballot was “making the best out of a bad situation,” but the town intends on returning to normal town meeting protocols.

“People didn’t love it because you couldn’t have a good discussion. Across the board, citizens, public officials, me at the town office, we prefer to have the traditional town meeting,” Hebert said. “Even when it’s an issue that might be controversial, it’s typically not contentious at the town meeting.”

In Benton, the town always conducted municipal officer elections by secret ballot and budget articles in a traditional town meeting format. The pandemic caused both aspects to go to secret ballot, and 166 and 109 voters turned out for the election of municipal officers in 2020 and 2021 despite the pandemic. The town had just 53, 59 and 65 voters at annual meetings in 2017-2019.

The pandemic caused small turnouts in towns that continued with a traditional town meeting setup. In Sidney, just 42 of the town’s 3,606 registered voters came to the 2021 town meeting at James H. Bean School. In 2019, approximately 75 voters attended, five less than the year before.

Less than 50 of St. Albans’ 1,533 registered voters attended the 2021 town meeting at the town hall. The town usually hosts between 60-80 voters for the annual town meeting, according to St. Albans town clerk Gregory “Chuck” Crump.

As vaccination rates rise, reopenings follow and some towns may never give up the community discussions synonymous with town meetings.

“A small number of people can have a dramatic amount of impact on whatever is on the table to be voted on,” Brewer said. “There’s a desire to return to town meetings once it is safe.”

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