For thirty years Political Scientist Frank Bryan and his students attended more than 1,500 Vermont town meetings, cataloging more than 230,000 individual acts of participation – commenting, voting, raising hands – by more than sixty thousand citizens – documenting Vermont’s town meeting as an authentic and meaningful form of direct democracy.
When Frank Bryan retired in 2013, data collected ended, until now.
In 2018, a group of researchers and students at the University of Vermont, Castleton University and Northern University collected data from 38 town meetings across the state March 3, 5 and 6. Results from 31 of those towns are summarized here.
Dr. Bryan conducted many different analyses of the data, and here we summarize several. The heart of the analysis is “participation” which Dr. Bryan counted as attendance at the meeting and secondly actually saying something at some point at the meeting. Dr. Bryan developed a “democratic index” – a measure of attendance + participation and gave the title to Belvidere in his classic work Real Democracy.
Belvidere repeats as the most “democratic” town in Vermont, in our analysis. An astonishing 72 percent of those attending spoke at some point during the meeting. In total 39 people attended, almost 17% of the town’s registered voters and we recorded 125 separate acts of participation on issues ranging from the town’s dirt pile to the budget.
Closely following Belvidere in Bryan’s “democratic index” was Mendon, a much bigger town. Although only about 5 percent of registered voters turned out to town meeting, more than two-thirds of them spoke at least once. On the other end of the scale were the towns of Hinesburg, Richmond and Sheldon.
In a companion project, UVM students in Dr. Robert Williams’ Backpack Journalism class “covered” the town meetings, posting short video stories, or these pieces on the town of Shelburne, Starksboro and Hinesburg.
The five towns with the highest number of total participants (attendees/registered voters): Greensboro (25%); Weston (17%); Townshend (17%); Belvidere (17%); Bridgewater (14%).
The five towns with the highest number of participations within the meeting (number of individual participations/number of attendees peak): Belvidere (72%); Mendon (67%); Panton (54%); Bristol (51%); Hubbardton (50%) and Pittsfield (50%).
Using Frank Bryan’s measure of “democraticness” (percentage of registered voters at town meeting, plus the percent of attendees who spoke at least once), the top five most “democratic” towns in Vermont that we surveyed in order are: Belvidere, Mendon, Pittsfield, Panton and Hubbardton.
In general, as Dr. Bryan found, smaller towns have higher rates of attendance and higher rates of participation within the meeting. The Australian ballot and separation of school votes may also be influencing town meeting attendance and participation rates.
Still, early indications are that democracy is very alive and well in Vermont -- as measured in the Frank Bryan data system -- particularly in the state’s smaller towns. The impact of school consolidation will be examined in more detail in our next report.
This project is a collaboration between Rich Clark, Director of the Castleton Polling Institute, Castleton University and David Plazek, Political Science Department, Northern University and Richard Watts at the Center for Research on Vermont.
ABOUT FRANK M. BRYAN
Frank M. Bryan retired (2013) from the University of Vermont as the John G. McCullough Professor of Political Science. Professor Bryan is a noted local scholar, lecturer, author and humorist, having written and co-written over ten books and numerous articles. Frank documented his Town Meeting work in his important book Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works: (2004: Chicago University Press).