For the People, by the People

What I saw when I participated in one of the truest forms of democracy.

Plymouth Town Hall
A New Hampshire voter steps out of the Old Town Hall after voting in the nation’s first primary on January 10, 2012 in Canterbury, N.H. 

Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

We tend to ignore local government until something goes wrong—municipal bankruptcy, perhaps, or unplowed streets after a mishandled blizzard. Turnout in local elections is notoriously low, and attendance at city-council and school-board meetings is usually negligible. Most Americans have become accustomed to putting our communities in the hands of a few purported experts and leaving well enough alone.

So when I moved to a small town in Massachusetts last summer, I was surprised to learn that I would have the chance to be part of an experiment in direct democracy that dates back nearly 400 years. My town of Westborough (and hundreds like it across New England) is governed by town meetings, a system in which citizens act as their own legislature, coming together to deliberate and vote on everything from whether to buy the police department a new cruiser to how to zone for medical marijuana dispensaries.

I had spent years covering municipal governments as a newspaper reporter, and I had seen the infamous “town hall” meetings at which Tea Partiers berated members of Congress in 2009. Those partisan spectacles, at which discussion of President Obama’s health care bill routinely devolved into chaos and name calling, exhibited the worst side of our system of government. When I decided to attend my own town meeting, I was expecting either a raucous free-for-all with anti-tax tirades or a boring procedural with bad coffee and a handful of elderly or pensioned regulars. It was neither.

Town meetings are the last vestige of true direct democracy in the United States, and about as close as you can get today to the sort of government practiced by the Greek city-states that invented the form 2,500 years ago. Early New England settlers, whose quotidian affairs lay beyond the control and attention of the British crown, formally adopted town meeting as early as the 1630s, and that apparently gave them a taste for democracy. While some founding fathers saw the town meeting as taking things a bit too far—James Madison wrote, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob”—it’s clear that town meetings served as early inspiration for the American Revolution.

In my middle-class town of 18,000, the meeting was held this spring in the high school’s cavernous auditorium. The atmosphere was festive, and in the hallway outside the Westborough Women’s Club ran a bake sale, with proceeds from their banana bread and maple syrup muffins going to a local food pantry. The gym was turned over to a free childcare operation, with moon bounces and craft tables. When townspeople signed in, they received strips of mint green copier paper to hold aloft so volunteers called “tellers” could count the vote. Majority ruled, except in the few cases where a two-thirds vote was necessary. Few measures were controversial, so it was usually easy to gauge whether a motion carried by eyeballing the sea of green.

Some 450 people packed the auditorium at the height of the meeting—a small percentage of registered voters to be sure, but then again, they were being asked to do more than just mark a ballot. Town meetings consist of two four-hour sessions, with a two-hour dinner break in between. One long-time attendee told me that the meeting frequently required a third session the following week to complete all the scheduled business. It’s not quite government by the people—it’s government by the people who are willing to sacrifice a weekend.

But the people who came had come prepared. They had pored over the budget and done their research and, in some cases, their own math. They came armed with numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and news about neighboring towns’ property tax increases. In a country where just over one-half the eligible population can’t even be bothered to vote for president, it was incredibly heartening.

My fellow townspeople were also polite, organized, and respectful of one another. As a troop of Boy Scouts rushed around with portable microphones, voters patiently waited, hands raised, for their turn to speak. Unlike in Washington, there were no shouting matches, partisan sniping, or attempts to filibuster. It was in stark contrast to the way we’ve become accustomed to seeing our elected representatives behave—especially at the national level, where Congress has become less a deliberative body than a den of acrimony, contempt, and brinksmanship.

Today, with the sequester a fact of life, the stock phrase “do-nothing Congress” carries real implications for people’s everyday lives. But the citizens of Westborough were making decisions without dragging things outallocating funds for roadwork and police cars, rejecting a proposed cap on future property taxes. Perhaps there’s something to be said for citizen legislators, who can’t spend months bickering because we have real jobs to go to on Monday. We were also deliberating on issues that would have an immediate effect on our lives—our property taxes, our police, our roads. You can’t really have a “do-nothing” town hall meeting. That would never fly.

The most controversial item on Westborough’s agenda was the school budget. The volunteer finance committee wanted to lower it roughly $200,000 below what the volunteer school committee requested. A citizen spoke up and offered his own even lower number, and we debated the three proposals for the better part of an hour. Arguments weren’t based on ideology but on how the school budget fit into the town’s goal not to raise spending by more than 2 percent, and how our spending on special education compared with that of neighboring towns. When the debate heated up, the finance committee chair urged us to remember, “In the end, we’re all part of the same town.” The school committee’s budget passed, with 63 percent of the vote.

New England-style town meetings have changed little since the 1700s—aside from that fact that women and minorities are now invited. But they never really caught on elsewhere, and their survival today can likely be attributed to New Englanders clinging stubbornly to a strong regional identity. Unfortunately, town meetings are endangered as municipal populations grow unwieldy and increased mobility erodes institutional memory. Many towns today are unable to muster a quorum, and with a smaller proportion of voters attending, some have argued that open town meetings are not sufficiently representative. Some places are trading town meetings for the typical mayor and city council arrangement.

That’s a shame, and not just because town meetings are a form of democracy older than America itself. It’s a shame because of how well they work, even in this age of hyper-partisanship. Perhaps that’s because we’re facing our neighbors, or because what’s at stake is smaller and easier to understand than the federal budget. It’s also true that Westborough, more than 75 percent white and relatively well-off, is not exactly diverse. (Then again, neither is Congress.) But while town meetings aren’t perfect, they do show that it’s possible for a group of people to come together, discuss vital issues, and in a handful of meetings vote to raise or lower their taxes without so much as a salty word. That’s a lot more than the “professionals” in Washington can say.

Correction, May 22, 2013: Because of a production error, a photo caption in this article misidentified the town hall of Plymouth, N.H., as the town hall of Plymouth, Mass. The photo has been changed.