Voting on local issues soars with paper ballots

Jul 23, 2020

Last week Camden and the surrounding towns made history, as the time-honored tradition of the annual town meeting was replaced by a large vote at the polls and by absentee ballot.

The change was not due to innovation that caught on and spread quickly among the towns, but was an adjustment to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the adjustment was to Maine's executive orders postponing state primary and referendum votes to July 14, coupled with an executive order limiting public gatherings to 50 people.

Preparations for annual town meetings take months every year even under normal conditions.

Town officials, managers and volunteers devote months to preparation and public discussion of annual municipal budgets, which run on a fiscal year, usually beginning July 1. Other types of decisions that go to town meetings, such as waste disposal contracts, are handled in a similar manner. Legal requirements set by state law and town charters for public notice and hearings add still more time. The printing of paper ballots for elections of town officials and other items, which take place the same week as town meeting, is another piece with time-sensitive deadlines.

All of this meant that town officials were faced with the decision about what to do about town meeting in late April.

One question was whether constantly changing state rules would allow larger public gatherings in time for an August town meeting.

The towns of Camden, Hope, Appleton and Lincolnville decided not to bank on that change and took a leap into what may possibly become the future: deciding all issues usually handled at town meeting by means of a paper ballot.

Rockport took a different tack, but also ended up deciding to vote by paper ballot, in August, instead of holding a town meeting.

On July 14, state and local ballots counted in Camden showed a 51 percent turnout, with similar results seen in Lincolnville, Appleton and Hope.

All those who voted deserve congratulations for their participation during this strange and uncertain time, whether going to the polls, or by applying for, filling out and returning an absentee ballot.

In each of these four towns, one to two thousand registered voters decided on the town budget, numbers not seen before in these towns' histories.

Camden and Lincolnville decided to combine and total all the expenses in the municipal budget into a single vote. Hope and Appleton took a more traditional route, with each cost center a separate vote.

In all four towns, voters overwhelmingly approved town spending for the coming year, whether in one vote or piecemeal, as well as school budgets, and nearly all other items on town meeting ballots.

The numbers of people who approved these budgets by paper ballot are many times higher than the numbers who would have attended annual town meetings, based on past records.

Camden and Rockport budgets are typically passed at town meeting by 200 or fewer people. In the smaller towns, those numbers can range between 50 and 100. Every once in a while, a controversial issue will drive town meeting participation higher.

It deserves mention, that at open town meetings, every item can be discussed, changes made and approved or defeated. Changes are routinely made at town meetings to what was placed before voters, but these rarely involve significant differences in spending in town budgets. A trend in years without controversy is that those who attend town meetings are supporters, who get this annual business of local government done efficiently.

Town managers and administrators contacted in Camden, Lincolnville and Hope were pleased so many residents participated and enthusiastic about the success of the unprecedented voting process. One pointed out that the paper ballot vote gave an indication that the people who come to town meeting are a representative sample of the larger group of voters.

Another commented that all who staffed the polling location were in awe at the great turnout at the polls and number of absentee ballots that continued to come in, and saw voters who were respectful, patient, and followed guidelines for social distancing and masks.

Casting a vote, at the polls or in a public meeting, is one of the foundations of democracy. The huge numbers of voters who spoke through their ballots July 14 is proof that individual and community spirit is solid and strong in these small, New England towns, and has not been diminished by COVID-19.

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