How 'Democratic' Is Town Meeting? A Vermont Research Team Is On The Case

Mar 7, 2018

Tuesday was Town Meeting Day for most towns in Vermont, and along with residents casting votes and voicing opinions, researchers and students from three colleges attended meetings to measure participation and “democraticness.”

This survey is a restart of a project carried out over 30 years by University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan. Up until his retirement in 2013, Bryan and his students collected data on town meetings for a group of about 35 towns.

Now, researchers and students at Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and UVM are picking up where Bryan left off. Richard Watts, the director of the Center for Research on Vermont, is leading the effort at UVM. 

Richard Watts spoke to VPR's Henry Epp. Listen to their conversation above.

The survey aims to measure attendance, participation and the level of democracy at town meetings. The group determines how democratic a meeting is by counting how many attendees get up and speak.

By that measure, Watts says, the town of Belvidere is the most democratic in their findings. About 72 percent of attendees participated in the meeting, though just 39 residents were in attendance. Still, that's nearly 17 percent of the 234 registered voters in town — and that's a pretty strong showing, Watts says.

"Can you think of any other thing that we do in democracy where one out of five of us are actually taking the time to spend a couple of hours sitting together, making the decisions that influence, affect, guide our local community?" Watts asks.

Watts says smaller towns have historically been the more democratic towns in this survey. And that remains true this year, according to the preliminary results.

So are there any lessons from town meeting that could be applied to democracy on a larger scale? Watts is skeptical.

"One of the things that really works at town meeting is that we see and interact with people face to face," Watts says. "As these systems get larger and larger, it's harder and harder to do that. Frank [Bryan] had a term he called 'enforced civility.'

"So just by getting to be in the same room with people we disagree with, these are the same people that we're going to see tomorrow at the store or they're going to help us, you know, pull us out of the snow bank. So there's something about that face-to-face localness that's probably hard to replicate at a national scale."

Disclosure: Watts is an occasional commentator for VPR, and Northern Vermont University is a VPR underwriter.