Teszler: Playing to Lose

A town meeting form of government will never fairly represent students — it’s time to change it.

by Max Teszler | 7/16/21 4:10am

Less than an hour after polls closed in Hanover’s 2021 Town Meeting, news broke that David Millman ’23 had lost his campaign for Selectboard. His campaign deserves tremendous credit for trying to get a student onto the governing board of this town — and for driving engagement with key local policy issues among the student body.

But the campaign was doomed to fail from the start. The meeting was moved from April to July, so many students were physically unable to show up to vote. Yet even with elections at a normal time, Hanover’s traditional town meeting system of government fails to represent the interests of a community of roughly 11,000 — and students aren’t the only victims. Low-propensity voters, new arrivals to town figuring out how the system works, even those who are just busy — all are disenfranchised by our parochial and outdated system of government. Hanover should abandon the town meeting system and choose a style of government which more adequately reflects our status as a growing community home to an increasingly diverse college. The best option would be to incorporate as a city and elect an accountable and representative city council at regular intervals.

This system would bear some resemblance to what our current town meeting government has already become — just more official, transparent and accessible. I voted in Hanover’s Town Meeting this Tuesday, and was struck by its similarity to a normal election. I simply walked up, showed my ID, was given a ballot and then voted. The process felt like any other election day. Except for the fact the election was in the middle of July, in a tent in a parking lot, with arcanely-worded ballot questions requiring knowledge of the zoning code to be fully understood. 

Of course, not all of the important items were even on the ballot — 16 other measures, many of which involved Hanover’s budget and summed to millions in fiscal changes, had to be voted on at the live 7 p.m. “Business” meeting. This is what “good governance” in Hanover amounts to: a Selectboard elected in low-turnout, usually non-competitive elections, a system of confusing referendums and votes on essential budget items which see even lower voter participation. 

To be fair and give the town meeting form of governance some credit, for the first 200 years of Hanover’s history, it made perfect sense to run the town this way. The community had a significantly smaller population and electorate — direct participation is a fair form of government when you can just bring everyone together and hash out the town’s issues. The town meeting structure remains a surprisingly common form of government in the region, especially for smaller towns. It is a point of pride for many in New England — a mark of pride in civic engagement and direct democracy.

But such a system breaks down in a town of over 11,000 — especially a college town of over 11,000. Many of our residents are transient and live here for only four years, usually leaving in the summer. I’m not the first to say that moving the town meeting to July reeks of disenfranchisement, intentional or not. Students are busy, and don’t have time to directly familiarize themselves with all of the codes and laws cited in various ballot questions, nor do most of them have the time to attend an in-person meeting to vote on the town’s budget. In fact, expecting any voter to become familiar with the relevant laws associated with 20 policy questions — then vote at the ballot box and later come to an in-person meeting — is highly unreasonable. 

The numbers clearly tell the story of this disenfranchising system. Over the past 10 years, the all-day voting portion of the meeting saw about 12% average turnout, based on the number of people on the voter checklist in each election and the number of people who actually cast ballots. This figure is highly variable from year to year, with some meetings dropping below 4%  and others having over 30% — presumably reflecting the varying importance of a particular year’s set of ballot questions. But even the high water mark — May of 2017, when 3,503 voters cast ballots — is less than half of last November’s presidential election, which saw a whopping 7,171 voters cast ballots. 

Meanwhile, the in-person budget meeting seemingly accounts for low participation by design. There was no way that the 7,171 voters who voted in last year’s presidential election could’ve fit in the available space in Dewey Lot, maybe not even half of that number. When the eyes of many progressives are turned to Republican voter suppression and “defending democracy,” the fact that the ostensibly-liberal Hanover still relies on such a system is, as the kids say, a bad look.

Fortunately, low participation and confusing ballot questions are a problem representative government is built to solve — we elect representatives to act in our interest who can actually dedicate time to understanding the intricacies of certain decisions. Hanover can adopt this mode of government by chartering as a city and creating a regularly-elected city council. But wouldn’t this destroy Hanover’s character as a close-knit small town? Well, if Hanover was looking for harmony amongst its population, they seem to have already failed, with tensions between students and long-time residents boiling over. The community participation and transparency of a town meeting form of government are an illusion — there is no true forum for citizens to come together and work out issues, only confusingly-worded questions voted on by a fraction of the population. 

Representatives would do well here — let them debate out the fine details and then face accountability from voters on their record. Our next-door neighbor, Lebanon, has been a city for over 60 years, with six city councillors elected from various districts and three elected at-large by the whole city. If Hanover had a similar system, one or more districts could be dominated by students, while others could still adequately represent the town resident majority. Direct voter input would also still be permitted under such a system, which can be useful on issues of particular public interest; cities in New Hampshire are allowed to hold referendums and regularly do so. 

This will clearly not be an end-all, be-all fix. Cities across the state still struggle with issues of turnout; Lebanon saw an average turnout of about 18.0% at their past five municipal elections, only marginally better than Hanover’s. Additionally, there is a need for a fundamental realignment of how students and long-time town residents engage with each other; this is an issue of political culture which a new system of government cannot solve in itself, but can make progress towards. The failings of our existing system are simply so clear. Students have been shut out of power, just as a regional housing crisis grows ever more dire. If we want real change — or even just real democracy — in Hanover, then its town meeting form of government must go.