Op-ed: Voting rights at Andover Town Meeting

By Madeline Bodin
©2024 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Where will you be on Monday, March 4 at 5 o’clock? If you live in Andover and you say, “Leaving work, of course,” you have a problem. For the second time in two years, Andover’s Town Meeting will be held on a weekday afternoon.

There is a well-respected Andover resident who often says at Town Meeting, “The people in the room get to decide.” Was I ever smug about being in the room? One year, I brought my 2-week-old daughter to Town Meeting. If that doesn’t establish me as a Town Meeting nerd, I don’t know what will. But I never considered the privileges — especially my financial, mental and physical health — that allowed me to participate.

Then, last year, I was the person who wasn’t in the room. For the 2023 Town Meeting Day, I had Covid and had already missed a week of work. I tried to watch the Tuesday afternoon meeting online from home while juggling other things, but I found it impossible to participate while also getting my work done (and coughing).

In Chester, while most votes are by Australian ballot on Tuesday, Andover is a “floor-vote town.” That means you have to be physically present at the meeting when the moderator says, “all in favor, say aye,” to vote on any issue. It works this way in Londonderry and Weston, too. Because I was watching from home, I could not vote.

I’m not second-guessing the Andover Select Board for choosing to reschedule the 2023 Town Meeting to Tuesday from Saturday morning. There was a massive storm with feet of snow predicted for Friday into Saturday.

What saddens me is that the people who could accommodate a last-minute change to Tuesday afternoon barely gave a thought to the people who couldn’t. These are not bad people. In fact, some of my favorite Andover residents have speaking roles in this drama. But this is an excellent example of an essential flaw of democracy. Even good people, when they get a temporary advantage, find it all too easy to turn their backs on the people who didn’t have a say.

It’s true that the Vermont Town Meeting is traditionally an all-day affair, held on the first Tuesday in March. And the Town of Londonderry, for just one example, still does it this way. But Andover hasn’t done that in decades. When I moved to Andover 29 years ago, Town Meeting was held at 7 p.m. on the Monday  before Town Meeting Day. Later, it was moved to the Saturday morning before Town Meeting Day.

When I watched a recording of the 2023 meeting later on Okemo Valley TV, I saw that this discussion started with an observation that there were more people in attendance than had been seen for many years, or maybe ever.

But only eight more people attended in 2023 (74) than attended on Saturday in 2022 (66), a pandemic year when all articles were voted by paper ballot on the Tuesday of Town Meeting Day and 206 paper ballots were cast.

The population of Andover has boomed in the past 10 years, from 467 in the 2010 U.S. Census to 568 in 2020. That’s a 21 percent increase. I believe, based on the town’s increased population alone, that if the meeting could have been held as scheduled, the attendance would have been higher than 74.

When someone said it might not be the best year to change the day of the meeting, the man who always says, “The people who show up get to make the decisions” reiterated just that. Nobody else said a word about what the people who showed up might owe to those who couldn’t show because of the last-minute change of date due to the snow storm. The town voted to hold the 2024 Town Meeting on the Monday before Town Meeting Day.

In a non-binding vote, the people in the room greatly preferred starting the meeting at 4 p.m. A few people voted against it, but only one person spoke up. “You have to consider people who have to work for a living,” the man said. Since the Select Board would pick the time for the meeting, he urged them to pick a time that would allow working people to come home from work, grab a sandwich, and head to the meeting.

The Select Board scheduled the meeting for 5 p.m. That means no sandwich for anyone who works 9 to 5, even though that’s such a common work schedule that it’s shorthand for the work day, let alone the name of an ‘80s hit for Dolly Parton.

There is nothing that can be done to change the day or time of this year’s Town Meeting. On Monday, March 4, 2024, the people in the room at Andover Town Hall will vote for when Andover’s Town Meeting will be held in 2025. Once again, the only people who can vote are the people for whom 5 p.m. on a weekday is possible.

If you can’t make it, too bad. If you attend the meeting virtually, you can speak, but you can’t vote. The way Town Meeting in Andover works, the people in the room really do get to decide, and that’s not always fair.

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  1. RAYMOND MAKUL says:

    They worry a lot about getting sued, but not enough to have a town attorney under retainer, nor a provision for legal expenses in the town budget.

  2. Felicity Haselton says:

    Let’s be realistic. The Andover Town appointed and elected politicians do not give two figs about Andover residents. The reason they don’t schedule meetings to accommodate working people is because they are not interested in accommodating working people. Like all the other politicians in this country, old, irrelevant and out of touch.