With recount deadlines looming in Florida, the cynical have the opportunity to use the fact that a recount is happening as another example of the failures of our voting system. The temptation to point to the “need for a recount” as evidence that the initial vote was flawed in some way neglects the fact that when the margin of victory is equal or less that 0.5% that Florida’s state law provides for an automatic recount. In an age where facts are deemed truthful only if they align with ones opinion, this rush to discredit the process of democracy is poisonous.
That same sort of cynicism and damning which is observable at the state and national level is also alive and well locally, in the small towns where we might think we are immune to it or “better than.”
A couple of weeks ago, my town had it fall town meeting. A tiny percentage of the town’s registered voters attend, usually in the 5% range. Most of whom who do go have done so religiously for years. I am one of those attendees who shows up not only to listen to the finer details of our town’s governmental process but also to participate.
“Participation” at town meeting includes voting on various articles–such as those relative to policies, zoning, and funding–as well as getting up, walking over the microphone, and sharing thoughts, facts, and opinions about any of the foregoing. Many New Englanders see town meeting as the most honest and transparent method to come to consensus on matters that intimately affect their towns. This is part of the reasoning behind preserving this age-old, often very time consuming practice.
The “rules” of town meeting are governed, sometimes loosely, by Robert’s Rules of Order, the most widely used manual of parliamentary procedure in the U.S. Over the last few years, adherence to these rules in my town has become more important, but this doesn’t change the fact that many people don’t either understand the rules or don’t have the patience to respect them.
One of these people was sitting right behind me for this most recent three-and-a-half-hour town meeting. And it was both annoying and disheartening to listen to the font of criticism and whining coming from behind me for those many hours.
During the open discussion of a particular article–one which clearly this person had no interest in despite the clear importance of the matter for many standing in line to share their insights with the attendees–the collection of groans, sighs, and “Jesus Christs” that I listened to made me wonder why this person came at all. It was as if this person simply couldn’t be bothered to listen quietly and with an open mind because there were more salient matters to attend to.
And I get that. Certainly, there have been lots of times that there is an article discussed at town meeting in which I have little interest. But the notion that I would audibly groan, scoff, or berate my fellow townspeople who do find said article of interest is beyond me.
At one point, toward the end of the meeting, I couldn’t bear it any longer. After a triad of “Jesus Christ,” “Blah, blah, blah,” and “Let’s just vote already,” I turned and said, “In order to get to a vote, you have to go up to the microphone and say ‘Move the question.’ That’s the method to end discussion.”
This person said, “I’m so sick of listening to these people.”
My reply: “And there’s a formal way to address that. There’s a process.”
This person scoffed at me, and I turned to face the person at the microphone giving her my full attention.
A few speakers later, the motion to “move the question” was made. Hearing some light applause in the school gymnasium, I was saddened as there were still several people who were standing to speak.
The town’s moderator, who facilitates town meeting called for a voice vote, asking whether debate should end. Overwhelmingly, the vote was to stop debate and move to vote on the article, a hurry-up-I don’t-have-all-night-to-participate-in-democracy decision.
Who knows what those in line were going to share. Who knows whether their comments would have changed the outcome of the vote. No one knows because the process was cut short by impatience and intolerance–impatience toward the sharing of individual ideas and intolerance toward those with whom we share a town.
This is not democracy at its finest. In fact, I wonder whether it’s democracy at all.