Town Meeting Day has always been a very special time for me. As a child in the 1940s, I used to attend our meeting in Waitsfield at the old I.O.O.F. hall, with a crackling wood stove keeping us warm.
Across the street at the Congregational Church, the women were preparing a fine luncheon. Even though these women knew they were voters, they also knew their place and let their menfolks make the important decisions. Of course, there were always two or three women in attendance at the meeting; the teachers, town clerk, and those interested in fighting for some of their own salaries, I presume.
I probably would not have been there, either, except for the fact my mother was deathly ill with a brain tumor for four years and there was no other place to park me at the time. I loved to hear the men shout out their beliefs, argue and defend their positions.
It was quite a change from their usual everyday jobs as farmers, loggers, road crew workers, hunters, business owners, and various and sundry positions. However, noted by their absence along with the majority of women, were the hill farmers, the indentured mill workers and many of the French-Canadians who had recently arrived in our special Valley, and those with no means of financial support. We were a very white populace, none of whom had come through Ellis Island or were brought here on slave ships, but many were very poor.
It was here I first heard the phrase “dirt poor.” What are we going to do with them? I now realize these folks were those who owned no dirt, no land and thus, did not pay property taxes. Yes, in those days, if you did not pay property taxes, you were not allowed to vote unless you paid a poll tax. And if you were so very poor, how could you pay a poll tax? Often, the way to deal with these “dirt poor” folks was to have the town overseer of the poor give them a bus ticket to as far away as they could go and hope they would never return. So much for touting those “wonderful good-old-days!”
Yes, as a child, you could learn a lot by attending a traditional town meeting.
Today, as I live in Montpelier, in subsidized housing and thus, by some may also be considered to be “dirt poor,” I am permitted to vote, although I still feel that folks are judged much more by what their financial worth is than by what they can add to the body politic. And because I now live in the “city“ of Montpelier, we don’t even have a real town meeting, just a day for voting! There are still some among us who would like to take us back to those old ways of doing things. “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps! We are all born equal and you just don’t work hard enough,” they would say.
Many among us, even today, have no empathy for those less fortunate, whether they are immigrants, migrant farm workers, ex-felons, substance abusers, people of color or with disabilities, or folks who are temporarily homeless. Actually, the “poor” are sometimes divided into the deserving and undeserving poor. When town and city budgets are so strained that there is great difficulty paying for basic services, let alone human services, the last thing our representative lawmakers want to think about is raising taxes on the rich or on tourists. Oh, no, that would be socialism, a real dirty word.
A friend of mine, a volunteer at a church-run breakfast site, formerly called a “soup kitchen,” recently told me that she was astounded to learn from those she was serving that they didn’t vote, didn’t know they could vote, and told her directly: “Poor people don’t vote. Our vote doesn’t count.” Why is it we concentrate on getting high school seniors registered to vote but don’t ever think about hearing from those most in need? Perhaps if we did, we would have a much better understanding of what we really need to do to make our democratic republic a true place we can be proud of calling our home.
Poor people can and should vote. Maybe we need to spread the word and let folks who are unaware of their own rights, know that “Our vote is our voice.” Although it may be simpler to register to vote in advance at your current residence, whether it is under a bridge or in a downtown hotel, same-day registration is permitted in Vermont. If we don’t speak up now we will certainly have that fascist-style, top-down government so many of us fear is fast approaching, or in some cases, is already here.
Please educate yourselves about the issues, stop by your town or city clerk’s office ahead of time, and vote on March 3.
Mary Alice Bisbee lives in Montpelier.