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What can we do if a town meeting warning contains an error?

The deadline for posting a town meeting warning is 30 days prior to town meeting. 17 V.S.A. § 2641. Once that day has passed, the warning is final and cannot be altered or amended. Nor can an article be added from the floor, since state law requires that all articles to be voted upon are those that appear on the official town meeting warning. 17 V.S.A. § 2642. If an article was inadvertently omitted but is considered important, the only options are to either wait until the next annual meeting or call a special town meeting to vote on the article. 17 V.S.A. § 2643.

If there was a mistake in the way the town meeting was warned or noticed, there will need to be a subsequent town meeting to “validate” the action taken at the first meeting. Seventeen V.S.A. § 2662 allows voters to “correct and legalize” an omission or noncompliance with notice and warning requirements for a town meeting so long as the meeting and the business conducted at that meeting was otherwise legal and within the scope of the town’s authority. Validation takes place when the town holds a properly warned subsequent special or annual town meeting and votes to “readopt, ratify and confirm” the action taken at the first meeting. 17 V.S.A. § 2662. The town need not vote anew on each article of the prior meeting, but merely pose one question in substantially the following form: “Shall the action taken at the meeting of this town [or city, village or district] held on [state date] in spite of the fact that [state the error or omission], and any act or action of the municipal officers or agents pursuant thereto be readopted, ratified and confirmed?” 17 V.S.A. § 2662.

Some town meeting warning problems can be addressed on Town Meeting Day if the town votes from the floor. For instance, if an article was inadvertently included on the warning, a town that votes from the floor may vote to “pass over” the article (or, more properly, to “postpone the article indefinitely”) so that it is not voted upon. In a town that votes by Australian ballot, it is not possible to postpone or pass over an article.

If the error was in an amount of money listed in an article, the voters may vote to increase or decrease that amount by amendment from the floor at town meeting. However, any amendment must be “germane” (closely related) to the amount that was warned. It is up to the town meeting moderator to decide whether a proposed amendment is germane, although the voters may vote to override the moderator’s decision. An amendment is not germane if it changes the subject, object, or means of execution of an article. In a town that votes by Australian ballot, it is not possible to amend an article on Town Meeting Day.

What is the difference between a paper ballot and an Australian ballot?

Australian ballots are uniformly pre-printed ballots for secret vote elections and include any ballots counted by machine vote tabulator approved for elections conducted in this state. Articles to be voted on must have been pre-warned and the polls must be open for an extended period during or after a municipal meeting, or both. 17 V.S.A. § 2103(4). In contrast, a paper ballot is just a piece of paper on which the voter may write “yes” or “no” or the name of a candidate who is running for office.

The Australian ballot process for voting applies only if specifically required by statute or charter, or if the law enables the voters to use it for certain items of town business. A municipality may vote to use Australian ballot voting for officer elections, or to vote on budget articles and public questions either individually or collectively. 17 V.S.A. § 2680. A municipality may also vote to adopt or amend a municipal plan by Australian ballot. 24 V.S.A. § 4385(c). In a “rural town,” the selectboard or the voters may require that zoning bylaws be adopted by Australian ballot. 24 V.S.A. § 4442(c)(2). A rural town is a town having a population of fewer than 2,500 persons or a town having between 2,500 and 5,000 persons that has voted by Australian ballot to be considered a rural town. 24 V.S.A. § 4303(25).

In contrast, municipalities are required by law to use Australian ballot in some instances, including:

  • governance charter amendments. 17 V.S.A. § 2645(a)(7);
  • municipal mergers. 24 V.S.A. § 1485(c);
  • entrance into a union municipal district such as a solid waste district. 24 V.S.A. § 4863(c).
  • bond votes. 24 V.S.A. § 1758(a);
  • borrowing for public improvements or the acquisition of capital assets when the term is more than five years. 24 V.S.A. § 1786a(c);
  • the decision to appoint rather than elect a constable. 17 V.S.A. § 2651a(a)(1); and 
  • the question of whether or not to have a town manager if the town elects its officers by Australian ballot. 24 V.S.A. § 1243.

There are other statutes that refer to paper ballots rather than Australian ballots. State law directs that certain town officers must be elected by paper ballot. These include selectboard members (17 V.S.A. § 2646(4)); listers (17 V.S.A. § 2646(5)); auditors (17 V.S.A. § 2646(6)); and, if the town so votes, road commissioner(s) (17 V.S.A. § 2646(16)); water commissioners (17 V.S.A. § 2646(17)); and advisory budget committee members (17 V.S.A. § 2646(18)). This means that unless the town has voted to elect officers by Australian ballot, the town must use paper ballots to elect those officers. Paper ballots are also required for the vote to eliminate the office of elected auditor under 17 V.S.A. § 2651b and the vote to eliminate the office of elected lister under 17 V.S.A. § 2651c. Lastly, Robert’s Rules of Order allows for the voters at town meetings to request the use of a paper ballot in certain instances. Robert’s requires a majority of the voters to request a paper ballot, but, under authority of 17 V.S.A. § 2658, the paper ballot may be demanded by just seven voters.

How do we elect someone to local office with only one “paper” ballot cast?

When voting takes place at a floor meeting by paper ballot, a majority of all votes cast is ordinarily required for election. However, when there is only one nominee for an office, the voters of the town may vote to instruct the town clerk to cast one ballot for the nominee and, unless objection is made, “upon such ballot being cast he or she shall be declared elected.” 17 V.S.A. § 2660(b).

For assistance with specific town meeting questions, please contact the Municipal Assistance Center at info@vlct.org or 800-649-7915.

Garrett Baxter, Senior Staff Attorney 
Carl Andeer, Staff Attorney II
Susan Senning, Staff Attorney I
VLCT Municipal Assistance Center