Democracy in Harvard

“...it is very seldom, that men of the best intelligence and most capable of conducting publick business will leave their important private concerns to attend affairs in which they have only a general interest; it therefore unavoidably happens that the affairs of a large town are conducted by a very small number of persons, who represent and act for the whole, but are not chosen by them…”
—A Volume of Records Relating to the Early History of Boston ... 1814–1822 (Boston, 1906)

What are we to make of this year’s Annual Town Meeting? Yes, turnout was low, but was it too low? As we’ve reported, 312 registered voters—7.1% of Harvard’s total—signed into the May 4 meeting during the day. However, less precise headcounts taken by Press reporters show that far fewer were present at any given time and that when the meeting adjourned at 4:45 p.m., only 80 remained. Yet debate was vigorous, with new residents and younger voters stepping up to the microphone, in place of several noticeably absent regulars.

This year’s number was dramatically lower than 2018’s, when 1,071 or 24.3% of registered voters filled the gym and Cronin Auditorium to decide whether to build a new elementary school. It was higher, however, than 2017’s, a year when attendance at the first of two nighttime sessions dropped to 5.7%. Excluding last year’s spike, turnout for the past six meetings has averaged 7.1 percent.

These figures are strikingly similar to attendance records compiled nearly 20 years ago by researchers in Massachusetts and Vermont. Three independent studies found a strong negative correlation between a town’s population and the percentage of registered voters who show up for a town meeting. The smaller the town, the larger the average turnout; conversely, the larger the town, the smaller the turnout. Among 34 Massachusetts towns with populations between 5,000 and 7,499 residents, for example, one study found the average turnout to be 7.1%. Harvard’s population is 5,904 and 7.1% is the percentage of registered voters who attended this year.

While Harvard and many other New England towns are direct democracies by law, numbers like these suggest that they are, in practice, representative democracies. It’s true that Harvard’s legislative branch, as specified by its town charter, remains an open town meeting, which any registered voter can attend, regardless of race, gender, faith, wealth, or any other characteristic that less democratic governments have used to exclude participation. But by leaving decisions to the few, the many who stay home delegate decision-making to others, who become their de facto representatives, speaking and voting on their behalf.

Perhaps this is the reality of town meeting in the 21st century. Is it “good enough” government for Harvard? Those who give up a few hours each year—rain or shine—to debate the use of taxpayer dollars or the wisdom of proposed changes to town bylaws might just be the best informed townsfolk, the most committed and passionate about the issues of the day, and most worthy of voters’ trust. And when an occasional controversy spurs greater participation, as happened in 2018, the flexibility of town meeting readily accommodates the surge in voter interest, allowing wider representation and a democratic means to seek what’s best for the community.

The fate of town meeting, here and elsewhere, lies in the willingness of young people to take their elders’ place in the legislative process. As boomers step aside, the future is in the next generation’s hands. If this year’s meeting is a bellwether, one can be cautiously optimistic.

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