The New England town meeting and school district meeting are the only direct democracy institutions in the United States involving lawmaking by assembled voters. Law making by assembled adult males dates to the age of Pericles in Greece in the fifth century B.C. But the only other currently assembled voters’ lawmaking body is the Landsgemeinde in a handful of Swiss cantons.
A New England town meeting, except in Rhode Island, is called by the Board of Selectmen–the town’s plural executive–which issues a warrant or warning of the place date and time of the meeting. The warrant also contains business articles, a fixed agenda to be acted upon by the assembled voters. Should the selectpersons fail to include in the warrant an article requested by a group of voters, the latter may employ the initiative to place the article in the warrant.
TheNew England town meeting is a de facto representative body because the majority of eligible voters do not participate in the meeting except in very small towns. Attendance ranges from an average of 9 percent in Connecticut towns, to 26 percent in Vermont towns.
Proponentsof the town assembly emphasize that it is the purest form of democracy that ensures that all policy decisions are in the public interest since no intermediaries are placed between the voters and the public decisions.
Critics of the institution claim that, in practice it is not the purest form of democracy. They point to low turnout of registered voters, and the alleged domination of the meetings by special interest groups. James Madison, a critic of town meetings, wrote in The Federalist Number 55, “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
Thesystem of New England town governance has been modified in a number of towns over the years in response to some of these criticisms as well as to growing populations. In the late nineteenth century, a number of towns established a finance committee to advise the town meeting. More recently, 51 towns have adopted a charter providing for a representative town meeting (RTM) in which voting on warrant articles is restricted to elected town meeting members. An additional 34 towns retain the town meeting only to appropriate funds. Thirty-five New Hampshire towns and eight Vermont towns hold only a deliberative town meeting, with voters subsequently going to the polls to vote on warrant articles by the Australian or official ballot.