News this week confirmed what we already knew: Turnout for the 2020 General Election was extraordinary.

Following the certification of vote totals and winners for federal and statewide offices, Secretary of State Jim Condos noted, “This election year was like no other we have ever experienced. … I want to thank Vermont voters for overwhelmingly embracing the safe, secure voting options available to them, and for demonstrating our Green Mountain resiliency by voting in record numbers safely during a pandemic.”

In all, the certified total of ballots cast in the 2020 General Election this year was 372,366, a record high of ballots cast during a Vermont General Election, representing a 73.5% turnout of registered voters. The previous record was 326,822 set in 2008.

Vermonters also voted early, including by mail, in record numbers, following the mailing of ballots to all active, registered voters by the secretary of state’s office. Of the 372,366 ballots cast in the 2020 General Election, 280,455 were cast early/absentee, meaning 75% of all ballots cast were cast early or by mail. The previous record was 95,203 in 2016.

That level of engagement and participation is important to our democratic process.

Since March, when the pandemic forced us to conduct ourselves remotely, there also has been an uptick in citizens participating in and tuning into public meetings.

Journalists will be the first ones to tell you that sitting through a tedious Select Board or Planning Commission meeting can be just short of painful. However, with platforms like Zoom that allow interested parties to relax in their comfort of their homes, there is more willingness to “check in” on elected officials during their public meetings.

That’s a good thing, not just for holding officials more accountable, but for broader perspectives and more community interaction. Typically, public meetings are sparsely attended, and some boards and committees cut corners or, occasionally, forego the state’s rules for open government and transparency. There are documented cases of communities that have been conducting business and making decisions outside the eye of the public. They were condemned for their conduct, and in some cases forced to reconsider decisions made in a small-town vacuum. That was pre-COVID.

The pandemic and the technology accessible to most of us has, in many cases, put Vermonters in the front-row of decision making.

You can ponder motivating factors. People confined to home for the most part might be bored; or, more likely, they have discovered a sense of obligation to the tax dollars they pay each quarter. Or, in their longing for “community,” they sense an opportunity for input or collaboration. Those are all noble reasons for being involved.

So is being a gadfly or a watchdog.

Community dustups are often the stuff of personal disagreements, vendettas or drama. None of those reasons should be influencers for the greater good of a town.

Fortunately, in addition to the devoted journalists of the print media who are reporting on these meetings, the towns themselves are — for the most part — recording their public sessions, and making them available on YouTube or Vimeo, on Facebook pages, or through public access television stations around the state.

Who knew accountability could be found in reruns?

When the book is closed on 2020, it will be interesting to see whether local and state decision-making will have had more participation. More so, it will be for historians, lawyers and policy wonks to determine whether the decisions made during this pandemic will stand the test of time because they were more actively vetted in the public meeting process, or in deliberations.

The media always will be first to call for transparency in government, and push for more access as the eyes and ears of the public.

But the public, as well, should push for this process at the town and state level to continue well beyond a vaccine. It has provided us with a glimpse of the future, and a community-wide workflow that works in all of our best interests.

Engagement is imperative — perhaps more so than electing people to work on our behalf.

All Vermont results from the 2020 General Election can be viewed at electionresults.vermont.gov on the secretary of state’s website.

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