The traditional New England town meeting has long been revered as a pure form of democracy, but decreased attendance, the pandemic and the rise of absentee balloting may mean the end of an era.

In the past year, many municipalities have forgone the town meeting process to vote on their budgets at the polls while others have come up with creative solutions including drive-in meetings. Towns have seen increased participation and easier access. Voters now can decide important issues with unprecedented convenience via absentee and mail-in ballots.

“Town meeting is absolutely in danger of change,” Lincolnville Town Administrator David Kinney said. “Now you can call up. We mail you a ballot. We never see you. You never see us. Yet we’re here to do your bidding.”

Some towns were already changing over to referendum-style town meetings before the pandemic, arguing it increases voter participation.

“Towns and cities are going to generally move in that direction even after the pandemic,” said Eric Conrad of the Maine Municipal Association. “…Is something lost? No doubt about it. It’s the most popular structure for town government in Maine, and it has served us well for a couple of centuries. But it’s also 2021. Many of our members had to adapt last year, and they learned that more people are participating.”

Camden Select Board Chair Robert Falciani said the town has formed its charter commission to evaluate the pros and cons of the town meeting government versus other ways of doing the town’s business. Falciani said there are options beyond simply going to a city form of government, such as a hybrid model where the town manager and select board can make more decisions without going to a town meeting vote.

Falciani said the last two elections have had record turnout because of absentee ballots. People have more time to look at the ballot items, research them and think about them this way, he said. In contrast, he said attendance has been quite low at town meetings.

Falciani said people are so busy with their lives these days that they do not have time to be actively involved in local government. “When there was more participation, it may be that life was different.”

Conrad said participation in town meetings has decreased dramatically from what it was in 1950, though recent years have not seen as much change in attendance from one year to the next.

Some voters may be more likely to participate when it doesn’t mean speaking up or raising a hand in public.

“There is a large percentage of voters in Rockport who prefer to keep their views to themselves,” Rockport Select Board Chair Debra Hall said. “The town meeting method does not permit that and can result in the loudest views being heard but not necessarily reflect the views of the majority of the town’s residents.”

Veteran town meeting moderator and local attorney Fred Newcomb said part of it may be generational. He said most of the people turning out for town meetings in Owls Head are older citizens while younger people tend to stay home.

“As time goes on and the older group dies off, I don’t know if the next generation is going to step up and get involved,” he said.

Many town officials prefer town meetings.

“There’s a dynamic to it,” Kinney said. “I’m a believer in it. Always have been.”

Some people question whether the voters using absentee ballots and voting at the polls are as well informed. In a town meeting you can ask questions about a ballot item. You can propose an amendment to it, actually enacting a change to the amount of money in a budget, for example. You can make a statement that persuades other residents to vote your way.

Kinney also believes the meeting form of government creates a sense of community and helps people understand how their government operates. “The closer you are to your local government the better off we’re all going to be,” he said.

“Mail-in ballots are so impersonal and enhances the apathy, ” Union Town Manager Jay Feyler said. ” You can’t explain the history of a particular issue on a written ballot, thus citizens have less information to make a decision.”

Town officials agreed that turnout at town meetings can be driven by controversial issues on the ballot. There are often two groups at every town meeting: the core group of people who always turn out because of a sense of civic duty, interest or tradition, and those who are there for the hot-button item.

Newcomb said that when divisions arise in a town, town meeting provides a place for people on both sides to be heard and work things out.


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