Some form of municipal government will never fairly represent students – it is time to change it.
Less than an hour after the polls closed at Hanover’s 2021 municipal assembly, news broke that David Millman ’23 had lost his campaign for Selectboard. His campaign deserves immense credit for trying to get a student to this city’s board of directors – and for building engagement with key local political issues among the student body.
But the campaign was doomed from the start. The meeting was moved from April to July, so many students were physically unable to show up to vote. Yet even with elections at normal time, Hanover’s traditional system of government at municipal meetings fails to represent the interests of a community of around 11,000 people – and students are not the only victims. Low propensity voters, newcomers to the city who are new to how the system works, even those who are just busy – all are disenfranchised by our outdated and parochial system of government. Hanover should abandon the municipal meeting system and choose a style of government that more adequately reflects our status as a growing community with an increasingly diverse college. The best option would be to form a city and elect a responsible and representative municipal council at regular intervals.
This system would look somewhat like what our current municipal government has already become – just more formal, transparent and accessible. I voted at the Town Meeting in Hanover on Tuesday and was struck by its resemblance to a normal election. I just stepped forward, showed my ID, received a ballot, and then voted. The process was like any other election day. Except for the fact that the election was held in mid-July, in a tent in a parking lot, with obscure voting questions requiring knowledge of the zoning code to be fully understood.
Of course, not all the important points were even on the ballot – 16 more measures, many of which concerned the Hanover budget and totaled millions of tax changes, were to be voted on in the live ‘Business’ meeting of 19 hours. This is what “good governance” means in Hanover: a selection committee elected in low turnout, usually uncompetitive elections, a system of referendums and confused votes on key budget items that see participation even weaker voters.
To be fair and to give some credit to the form of governance of the municipal assembly, for the first 200 years of Hanover’s history, it made perfect sense to run the city this way. The community had a much smaller population and electorate – direct participation is a fair form of government when you can just bring everyone together and solve the city’s problems. The structure of municipal meetings remains a surprisingly common form of government in the region, especially for small towns. It is a point of pride for many in New England – a mark of pride in civic engagement and direct democracy.
But such a system breaks down in a city of over 11,000 inhabitants, especially a university town of over 11,000 inhabitants. Many of our residents are passing through and have only lived here for four years, usually leaving in the summer. I’m not the first to say that moving the town meeting to July smacks of denial of the right to vote, intentional or not. Students are busy and do not have time to familiarize themselves directly with all the codes and laws cited in the various polling matters, and most of them also do not have time to attend a meeting. in person to vote on the city budget. In fact, to expect a voter to familiarize himself with the relevant laws associated with 20 political issues – then vote at the polls and later come to an in-person meeting – is highly unreasonable.
The numbers clearly tell the story of this disenfranchisement system. Over the past 10 years, the full-day voting portion of the assembly seen around 12% average turnout, based on the number of people on the voter checklist in each election and the number of people who actually voted. This figure varies greatly from year to year, with some meetings falling below 4% and others exceeding 30%, likely reflecting the varying importance of all polling questions in a given year. . But even the climax – May 2017, when 3,503 voters voted – is less than half of last November’s presidential election, which saw 7,171 voters vote.
Meanwhile, the in-person budget meeting apparently represents low attendance by design. There was no way the 7,171 voters who voted in last year’s presidential election could fit in the space available in Dewey Lot, maybe not even half that number. When the eyes of many progressives are on suppressing Republican voters and “defending democracy,” the fact that apparently liberal Hanover still relies on such a system is, as the kids say, a bad aspect.
Fortunately, low turnout and confusing ballot questions are a problem representative government is designed to solve – we elect representatives to act in our best interests who can actually spend time understanding the intricacies of certain decisions. Hanover can adopt this mode of government by constituting itself as a city and by creating a regularly elected municipal council. But wouldn’t that destroy Hanover’s character as a tight-knit little town? Well, if Hanover sought harmony among its people, they seem to have already failed, with tensions between students and long-time residents boiling over. Community participation and the transparency of a form of municipal government is an illusion – there is no real forum for citizens to come together and work out problems, only questions with confusing formulations voted on by a fraction of the population .
Representatives would do well here – let them debate the smallest details and then face the voters’ accountability on their case. Our immediate neighbor, Lebanon, has been a city for over 60 years, with six municipal councilors elected from various neighborhoods and three generally elected by the entire city. If Hanover had a similar system, one or more neighborhoods could be dominated by students, while others could still adequately represent the majority of the city’s residents. Direct voter participation would also still be allowed in such a system, which can be useful on matters of particular public interest; New Hampshire cities are allowed to hold referendums and do so regularly.
It will clearly not be the ultimate solution. Cities statewide continue to struggle with participation issues; Lebanon has recorded an average turnout of around 18.0% in its last five municipal elections, barely better than that of Hanover. In addition, there is a need to fundamentally realign the way the city’s students and long-time residents engage with each other; it is a question of political culture that a new system of government cannot resolve on its own, but towards which it can progress. The flaws in our current system are just so clear. Students were excluded from power, as was a the regional housing crisis is becoming more and more serious. If we want real change – or even just real democracy – in Hanover, then its form of municipal government must go.