read more: Boston Herald

It has been called the most democratic form of government, a “purely American” invention. For more than 350 years, Massachusetts towns have been governed by Town Meeting, in which citizens gather to make decisions about local budgets and laws.

But although historians and political scientists often wax poetic about this quaint New England tradition, Town Meeting is an institution that has outlived its usefulness.

Town Meeting has its roots in the Puritan church meetings of New England’s early settlers. The first recorded Town Meeting took place in Dorchester in 1633, more than 150 years before the Founders produced the U.S. Constitution.

In the early days of the New England colonies, Town Meetings were often held weekly. As populations grew, many towns decided to meet only once a month. Attendance was mandatory, and those who failed to turn out were fined. (Of course, attendance was mandatory only for those who had the right to vote — white, male property owners.)

Today, more than 200 Massachusetts towns still operate with an Open Town Meeting, in which any voter may attend and vote. Today’s Town Meetings usually occur only yearly, and participation is, of course, voluntary. Although attendance fluctuates depending on the issues being debated, those who study the institution have observed that overall attendance rates as a percentage of town population are abysmally low.

Some attribute this phenomenon to political apathy and declining civic engagement generally.

But in many communities it is the hustle and bustle of daily life, not lack of interest, which keeps voters away.

Back when Town Meeting was established, people lived and worked locally. Adults were generally around and available to participate in town governance.

Today, people travel for work, work nights and commute to jobs miles from home. Moreover, in 2011, all adults in a household can vote, and so, for some, attending Town Meeting requires hiring a babysitter.

Unlike voting at the local precinct, which can be accomplished in minutes, participation in Town Meeting takes hours and can take several days. Many concerned citizens are unable to make this kind of time commitment. When it comes to such nonsense as debating whether or not a town should allow the sale of bottled water, most average people neither have the time, the energy, nor the inclination to waste an evening arguing with some intrusive do-gooder.

Regardless of the reason, declining attendance means that a small, unrepresentative portion of the electorate makes decisions for the entire community. It is governance by might — a system where those with the loudest voices, and the time and the energy to outlast all others, always prevail. It is anything but democratic.

Supporters of Town Meeting argue that face-to-face gatherings engender civility among neighbors who must listen respectfully to one another’s views.

Perhaps. But a system where citizens vote by voice or show of hands also creates incredible social pressure for people to “go-along to get-along” — to absorb the current zeitgeist for the sake of neighborhood harmony.

Recognizing the value of the secret ballot and the need to make voting more accessible, New Hampshire now gives towns the option of hosting a deliberative Town Meeting with a regular secret ballot election to follow on a separate date. It is not the perfect solution, but it is a compromise worth considering.

Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote that “Town Meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, teach men how to use it and enjoy it.” That may be true. But, at some point, we all need to graduate primary school.


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