Tinmouth is not the only Vermont town to grapple with how to vote on Town Meeting Day. What makes Tinmouth unique, however, is how long it has debated whether to decide questions from the floor of town meeting or use private ballots in daylong voting, known as Australian ballots. The issue comes up again Tuesday in a special election.
Residents in the town of 600, southwest of Rutland, pride themselves on their sense of community. One Friday a month, many in town get together to contra dance at a community center built almost entirely by local volunteers. But Tinouth’s sense of kinship has been put to the test.
"This has ripped our town apart," says Cathie Reynolds. "And it’s just so sad. Because we did used to have this incredibly cohesive little town and now there are two sides."
One side that prefers traditional floor votes for town meeting and one that prefers Australian ballot. It’s a debate that’s been simmering since 2006, when a group of Tinmouth residents petitioned for a special election to change to Australian ballot. Paula Bonazinga was one of them and says she was surprised by the results. "It passed on all three counts for the town and all three items for the school."
The vote was close enough that a revote was called. But Bonazinga says Australian ballot proponents won again. She says that while traditional floor votes may have worked well in the past, she believes the custom has become archaic and limiting for those who have to work, are in the military, away at college or homebound.
"We contend, that if you’re a taxpayer and a land owner in town you should have a voice. And the way it would stand if we went back to town meeting – you don’t have a voice if you don’t’ go to town meeting."
Tinmouth resident Doug Fontein admits that the ability to use absentee ballots is a strong argument for Australian ballot. "However," he says, "the counter balance to that is the quality of decisions that get made when people vote things on the floor. For example, this year our school budget went up by about 2 percent, but the taxes went up by 13 percent and people aren’t going to necessarily understand why that happened if they aren’t able to attend town meeting and discuss that on the floor."
Town Clerk Gail Fallar says since the change to Australian ballot, attendance at the informational meeting held before the vote has dropped as has participation in other community events.
A compromise was adopted in March that called for a mix of floor votes on budgets and public questions and Australian ballots to select local officials. But Tinmouth resident Leonard Klinger says he’d like to do away with floor votes entirely.
"To be able to vote and not have to have someone look over your shoulder or see how you vote," says Klinger, "that’s why we go into booths and that’s why we close the curtain and you decide on your own what way you want to vote toward a certain situation."
Klinger and other Tinmouth voters get to weigh in, again, Tuesday.