Drive-Through Democracy? Public Deliberation and the New England Town Meeting in Connecticut
One of the oldest institutions of direct democratic participation by citizens is the New England Town Meeting. Despite its unique status, there have only been a handful of studies of this form of democracy during the past 40 years. While all forms of the New England Town Meeting in Connecticut involve direct participation by citizens, there are many variations in how different towns institutionalize this participation. Some towns retain the traditional form of the town meeting in which citizens meet together to decide issues that confront the town, especially passing the town budget. Some towns have adopted a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) format in which citizens elect a small assembly to act for the rest. Some towns still have an annual budget meeting at which they discuss the town budget, but then adjourn to an all-day referendum where citizens vote whether to approve the proposed budget. Finally, some towns use different hybrid forms of these various options. While this variation makes studying the town meeting in Connecticut complex, it also opens an opportunity. The goal of this project is to help fill the lacunae in our understanding of the Town Meeting by examining the public discourse surrounding proposed changes to the democratic forms towns use in deciding whether to pass their town budgets. It is at these moments that citizens give reasons for accepting or rejecting different forms of democracy for their towns, and as such, can provide insight into how public deliberation and the use of reasons functions in the face of fundamental questions about which citizens disagree and can illuminate how citizens understand the basic idea of democracy.