From Referee to Official Ballot Referendum: My Time Behind the Podium

Lynn Christensen

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

I have been a moderator for over 25 years. I have also been a soccer referee and a softball umpire. They are not so different: There are generally two opposing sides hoping to win the day; I still need my stopwatch; and, sometimes, I even need to step in and “break it up.” And, in each case, there is a set of rules that govern, and fair play and good sportsmanship are important.

Like the athletes during a game, voters at town meeting want to think you’re on their side—or at least not favoring the opponents. Maintaining an unbiased appearance and reputation is critical to moderating the meeting. Of course you have an opinion, but it should not influence how you manage people or the process. Each side must be treated equally, and allowed to “play” within the rules of the game, even when some individuals become outrageous or silly. This is part of the rule of good sportsmanship, more than a statute.  And, if someone becomes offensive or threatening, that is when you pull out the yellow or, in rare cases, the red card.

Understanding the issues and the players makes you more aware of potential problems and allows you to anticipate how to handle them. Things will always go more smoothly if I take the time to talk with the players in advance to help them understand the process and suggest ways to accomplish their goals. Otherwise, players may end up stumbling along, not understanding what is and is not allowed. For example, many times someone will attempt to introduce a surprise amendment—spur of the moment—on the night of the meeting. These proposals may be vague, poorly worded, or may even change as the individual is proposing it. Therefore, I require all amendments to be in writing. Taking amendments in writing means the voter has taken some time to put his thoughts into words, rather than rambling at the microphone. And, just as importantly, everyone else knows what is being proposed, without having to guess at what the proponent meant.

Over the years, as with anything else, the game has changed. As the number of voters increases, the number of people who want to speak at town meeting also increases. Meetings started extending past midnight and into a second night. There are rules that can help: establishing the length of time someone can speak; giving everyone an opportunity before recognizing someone for a second time. Also, the town can decide at the beginning of the meeting that, if all the articles have not been addressed by a specific time, the meeting will recess and reconvene on a second night. This assures that people will be fresher, and also gives them the opportunity to recruit additional people on their side to attend.

Even the basic town meeting has changed. While the original traditional town meeting still exists in rare pockets in the state—where warrant and elections are held at the same meeting—most towns have gone to the official ballot town meeting. Final decisions on the articles presented in the warrant are still made at town meeting, but elections to vote on those articles are held at a different time. This has made things easier for most people, adjusting as the needs of the voters have shifted. For example, town meetings are generally held in the evening and, as the population grew and changed to multi-income families, many found it hard to make the time to attend. Some towns have tried holding town meetings on Saturday, but found that people did not want to give up the only day they had time to do errands and dump runs. Additionally, some voters consider it a waste of time to sit through the entire meeting when they had already made up their minds and just wanted to get to be able to vote on the issue at hand. Others felt that the only people coming to the meetings were special interest groups to support their particular issue or to vote down one they felt passionate about. And even those who attend sometimes feel hesitant to raise their hand, realizing that everyone would see how they voted and be concerned about retaliation.

Hence “SB2” town meetings were born. Now a voter no longer has to sit and listen to that one guy who always stands up and speaks forever and says nothing, or the local activist who spouts the same arguments repeated over and over. Now he or she can show up to vote on each of the articles on election day, in the privacy of the booth, and at a time during the day most convenient for his or her schedule. And the special interests could no longer negate your vote by packing a deliberative session.

Alas, SB2 meetings do have some disadvantages. We discovered after a few of these meetings that, since fewer and fewer people show up to debate the articles, a smaller number of people could influence the wording of the article that appears on the ballot on election day. Then, on election day, voters look at their ballots for the article to buy band uniforms, only to discover it was watered down at the town meeting, and now only proposes “looking into” the variety of uniform options. Therefore, attendance at the meeting is still important.

Regardless of the rules or the type of meeting, there will always be difficult situations and difficult people. You need to be patient, listen well, and take your time with the voters.

Case in point: At the last presidential primary—early in the morning before the traffic flow became an issue—we had an upset voter. As happens not all that infrequently, the woman went to check in and vote in one party’s primary, only to discover that she could not, because she was registered as a member of the other party. She became very indignant. She explained emphatically that she is an independent and “never-ever” stays in a party even if she votes in the primary. I suggested that maybe she forgot: “No way!” She always signs the book to go back to undeclared. Always! She hung around the polls for over an hour and complained to anyone she could find, including the Attorney General’s representative and the lawyers representing the two parties. She cried, she yelled, she stamped her feet. Everyone directed her back to me. And I politely explained each time that I could not give her the ballot she wanted. I finally sent a Supervisor of the Checklist back to town hall to collect the checkout book from the vault and brought it back to the polling site. I opened it to the page with her name on it; she had not signed it. She eventually calmed down and took the ballot offered.

The point to the story is that people often “blame the ref.” But don’t let them drag you down to their level: don’t raise your voice; don’t cry; don’t stamp your feet. Be politely persistent, but be sure in what you are saying and doing. And don’t forget that having a sense of humor goes a long way.

Lynn Christensen has served as town moderator in the Town of Merrimack since being first elected in 1990.  

Article Topics: