By Don Keelan
Voter apathy was surely present on June 5, 2018, as evidenced by the recent turnout for the town of Bennington vote on changes to the town’s charter.
According to an article in the Bennington Banner by Jim Therrien, 608 voters came out to cast their vote either in favor of (440) or against (148) amending the town’s charter. To place the results in perspective, there are 9,166 registered voters in Bennington, and the turnout saw only 6.6 percent of them express an interest.
When there is such a poor showing by the residents of Bennington on an important town matter, it surely looks like democracy is getting close to being terminal.
The issue of voter apathy is not new and is something that has been occurring for some time, especially on annual town meeting day — not only in Bennington, but throughout Vermont. And there are other aspects that support the conclusion that apathy has tightened its grip.
Throughout Vermont, there are countless board seats pertaining to local government that are not being filled. There are planning boards, zoning boards, school boards and, in some cases, select boards that have empty chairs. This is in addition to almost zero public attendance at scheduled public meetings.
According to Therrien, the charter changes were both minor and substantive. The proposed changes were the product of a Charter Review Committee that had been working on changes and updates to the town’s charter since early last year. Aside from periodic amendments to the charter, it has been five decades since the charter was changed by the voters.
Bennington has the potential to be a prosperous and successful town — it is home to four colleges, a major hospital (largest employer in the county), numerous cultural and manufacturing organizations, a fairly large pre-K to 12th grade school population, and wealthy and not so wealthy residents. Not all of the changes to the charter would affect everyone in town, but judging from the turnout, most residents did not care.
The real takeaway from the June 5 experience is the message the adults of voting age send to the younger generation of their town. The lack of interest in the political process at the local, state and national level has been adopted by so many.
Can it be that we are too busy with our daily lives? Is there just too much political polarization, or is it that one feels that his or her voice won’t be heard, so why bother at all?
I believe that positive change might very well be on the horizon. It will initially come from a three week event that will take place in southern Vermont this summer when The Mill, a nonprofit entity in East Arlington, will be producing and sponsoring the Four Freedoms Festival. Ever since last year, Mountain Media LLC and The Mill Inc. have been working on bringing the festival to Vermont.
“The Four Freedoms” were the paintings developed by Norman Rockwell in 1942, inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s January 1941 speech “Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom of Speech.”
It might be helpful to many to hear the history of how Rockwell was inspired to do the painting Freedom of Speech. In 1942, he witnessed an Arlington farmer stand up at town meeting and voice his concerns over the town’s rebuilding the fire-destroyed high school. His was the only voice against the proposed project.
The town of Bennington, one of Vermont’s oldest and most historic places, deserves better than to have only 6 percent of its registered voters come out to vote. I hope that we are not ready to have the pallbearers of the casket of democracy be the lobbyists, bureaucrats and politicians.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.