Is going to town meeting a waste of time? Is our peculiar brand of local government really an exercise in pure democracy, as we are often told, or is the system itself unfair?
Last week’s annual town meeting in Provincetown had people asking questions like these after three controversial petitioned articles on short-term rental regulation were first taken up as a package and then summarily canned — “indefinitely postponed” is the term of art — with virtually no debate. The parliamentary maneuvers disturbed some voters, including 23-year-old Emma Fillion, who was quoted in our report last week saying, “As a young person, I feel like my opportunity to understand the implications of these proposed articles was stolen from me.”
A lot of people left that meeting feeling that “the fix was in,” as one reader wrote to me. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, and if it is, it wouldn’t be the first time that a group with a vested interest mounted a well-organized effort to ensure a certain outcome at town meeting.
It would be a shame, though, to allow last week’s events to discourage younger people from civic engagement. Across the country there is an awakening of political awareness among students and young adults, who have been energized by the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade’s guarantee of abortion rights. Young voters also strongly favor LGBTQ civil rights and protections and want to see more aggressive government policies on climate change, energy, and housing. Voter registration and turnout at elections among 18- and 19-year-olds surged between 2018 and 2022 in many states, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
The oligarchs and authoritarians have taken notice. “Alarmed over young people increasingly proving to be a force for Democrats at the ballot box, Republican lawmakers in a number of states have been trying to enact new obstacles to voting for college students,” Neil Vigdor reported in the New York Times last month. It’s an old story, really — the effort of the people in power to keep it by limiting the participation of newcomers to the democratic process.
The state legislatures in Idaho and New Hampshire are trying to make it more difficult for students to vote, but I don’t think that’s what is happening here. I think most of us older folks want young people to be able to live here and to get involved in town affairs.
As Alan J. Roth notes on our op-ed page this week, town meeting procedures, which are designed to facilitate participation, can be used to subvert it. The rules governing main and subordinate motions are elaborate, and the moderator has a lot of discretion in how she chooses to apply them — but those rules can be learned, and the lessons of our imperfect local democratic process can be examined and debated at civic forums and in the pages of the newspaper. And there will be another town meeting in the fall.