Vermont's small towns tend to have more 'democraticness'

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Vermont's small towns tend to have more 'democraticness'

Wed, 03/07/2018 - 4:34pm -- tim

Vermont Business Magazine Vermont's smaller towns are more likely to have held on to a traditional town meeting and their residents tend to participate in the democratic process more often. For 30 years University of Vermont political scientist Frank Bryan and his students attended more than 1,500 Vermont town meetings, cataloging more than 230,000 individual acts of participation – commenting, voting, raising hands, by more than 60,000 citizens – documenting Vermont’s town meeting as an authentic and meaningful form of direct democracy.

When Frank Bryan retired in 2013, data collected ended, until 2018. 

This year, a group of researchers and students at the University of Vermont, Castleton University and Northern Vermont University collected data from 38 town meetings across the state on March 3, 5 and 6. (Statistics in this press release are drawn from 31 of the towns.) 

Bryan looked at town meeting data in many different ways, but at the heart of his analysis was the measurement of “participation,” which he defined, first, as attendance at the meeting, and second, as attendees participating in it. Bryan developed a “democratic index” – the percent of registered voters at town meeting added to the percent attending who spoke at least once -- and gave the title to Belvidere in his classic work Real Democracy.

In the new analysis, Belvidere repeats as the most “democratic” town in Vermont. A full 72 percent of those attending spoke at some point during the meeting. In total 39 people attended, almost 17 percent of the town’s registered voters, and 125 separate acts of participation were recorded on issues ranging from the town’s dirt pile to the budget.

Shelburne Town Meeting 2018 from Meghan Nanan on Vimeo.

Closely following Belvidere was Mendon, a much bigger town. Although only about five percent of registered voters turned out to town meeting, more than two-thirds of them spoke at least once. On the other end of the scale were the towns of Hinesburg, Richmond and Sheldon.

In a companion project, students in a Backpack Journalism course at UVM covered the town meetings, posting a series of short video stories: see Facebook for photos and videos and these links for videos on the towns of Shelburne and Starksboro.

The five towns with the highest number of total participants (attendees/registered voters) were Greensboro (25 percent), Weston (17 percent), Townshend (17 percent), Belvidere (17 percent ) and Bridgewater (14 percent).

The five towns with the highest number of participations within the meeting (number of individual participations/number of attendees peak) were Belvidere (72 percent), Mendon (67 percent), Panton (54 percent), Bristol (51 percent), Hubbardton (50 percent) and Pittsfield (50 percent).

In general, Bryan found, smaller towns have higher rates of attendance and higher rates of participation within the meeting. The Australian ballot and separation of school votes may also be influencing town meeting attendance and participation rates.

Still, early indications are that democracy is very alive and well in Vermont -- as measured in the Frank Bryan data system -- particularly in the state’s smaller towns. 

This project is a collaboration between Rich Clark, director of the Castleton Polling Institute, Castleton University; David Plazek, Political Science Department, Northern Vermont University; and Richard Watts at the Center for Research on Vermont at UVM.

Ranking of Towns on “Democraticness”

Town
Democratic index
Belvidere
88.46
Panton
62.29
Bristol
55.10
Fayston
54.95
Huntington
50.12
Lincoln
50.00
Charlotte
48.01
Bolton
45.97
Underhill
42.11
Starksboro
39.60
Middlesex
37.61
Hartland
35.98
Warren
35.75
Westford
33.28
Fairfield
33.01
Richmond
30.04
Jericho
28.33
Sheldon
26.54
Hinesburg
22.26
Greensboro
45.30
Wolcott
32.25
Mendon
72.02
Pittsfield
63.87
Hubbardton
56.69
Weston
54.58
Townsend
49.34
Ludlow
42.00
Clarendon
41.75
Benson
41.16
Bridgewater
24.31
Proctor
21.19

ABOUT FRANK M. BRYAN

Frank M. Bryan retired (2013) from the University of Vermont as the John G. McCullough Professor of Political Science. Professor Bryan is a noted local scholar, lecturer, author and humorist, having written and co-written over ten books and numerous articles. Frank documented his Town Meeting work in his important book Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works: (2004: Chicago University Press).

Source: UVM 3.7.2018