A Town Meeting Day scramble

Selectboard reverses course on mailing ballots

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Trying to get the five communities of the Champlain Valley School District on the same page for Town Meeting Day has been especially challenging this year.

The communities are bound together by a single school budget, voted on each March in five different locations, then collated for district-wide results. This year, the Legislature granted unprecedented flexibility to communities to conduct Town Meeting Day to protect public health in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Act 48 allows towns to limit in-person voting by mailing ballots unsolicited to all registered voters and to postpone their Town Meeting date — historically the first Tuesday in March — to later in the spring. 

The school district piggybacks on Town Meeting Day elections in Williston, Shelburne, St. George, Hinesburg and Charlotte, relying on five different town clerks to distribute school ballots alongside town ballots. 

“I strongly urge local officials to take advantage of the flexibility this law affords by mailing each registered voter a ballot for upcoming elections,” Gov. Scott said upon signing Act 48 into law last month.

Williston Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs had a similar message to his colleagues during a Jan. 19 board meeting, noting that universal ballot mailing led to record turnout in the November general election. “Shouldn’t a goal of ours be to maximize participation in the democratic process?,” he said before moving to direct the town clerk to mail town and school ballots to all Williston voters. “All towns (in the Champlain Valley School District) should be trying to do what they can to maximize voter turnout.”

Fehrs’ motion carried 3-2, with Ted Kenney and Gordon St. Hilaire joining him in the majority, and Terry Macaig and Joy Limoge voting against. 

Champlain Valley School Board chair Lynne Jaunich was tracking how the five selectboards would react to the flexibility afforded in Act 48. Around the same time that the Williston Selectboard voted in favor of mailing ballots to all voters, leaders in Shelburne, Charlotte and Hinesburg decided to conduct their elections as normal, with ballots mailed only to those who request them and a regular polling place open all day on March 2. 

With the school district’s communities going in different directions, Jaunich conferred with the director of elections at the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, Will Senning, about what to do.

“He said towns can do whatever they want, but you have to have one method of voting as a school district,” Jaunich said. “His recommendation was that we do what the majority of our towns were going to do.”

With that, the district decided it would not mail ballots to all voters unsolicited. Williston was still at liberty to mail town ballots, but could not include school ballots in the mailing. 

After learning of Senning’s guidance, the Williston Selectboard reversed course. Last Tuesday, it unanimously rescinded its Jan. 19 vote and moved forward instead with a normal Town Meeting Day election. Town and school ballots will be available early by request, and in-person voting will take place March 2 at the National Guard Armory on Williston Road.

To request an early ballot (both town and school), call the town clerk’s office at 878-5121 or email Voters can also make the request through the Secretary of State’s “My Voter Page” at Return postage will be prepaid. A ballot drop box will also be available through March 1 behind Town Hall. 

The municipalities of the Champlain Valley School District are now on the same page for a business-as-usual Town Meeting Day election, with one exception: the Town of St. George. 

St. George Town Clerk April Pillsbury confirmed Monday that the selectboard there has decided to push back its Town Meeting to May 4. She did not return calls seeking further comment. According to Champlain Valley School District Communications Director Bonnie Birdsall, the district plans to mail a postcard to all St. George voters inviting them to request a school ballot by mail, or to vote in the school election March 2 at St. George Town Hall.