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On Vermont's Ballots: Iraq War

Annual Town Meetings Feature Both Discussion, Discontent

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page A02

NORWICH, Vt., March 1 -- The resolution calling for the return of U.S. troops from Iraq was the 31st item on the town meeting agenda here in the white-walled gymnasium they use for square dances and thrift sales. After a day of balloting, it passed.

In postcard-perfect Strafford, Vt., a few miles west along a dirt road, it passed with hardly a whisper of dissent, minutes after residents authorized $12,920 to buy a used backhoe loader.

Voters cast ballots in Woodbury, Vt., on Town Meeting Day. About one-fifth of towns voted on an Iraq war resolution. (Toby Talbot -- AP)

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And in Bethel, a mill town that is considered conservative by this blue state's standard, residents narrowly endorsed a version of the measure, against the urging of a Vietnam veteran and a soldier who returned last week from the war.

Town Meeting Day, a New England tradition that dates to the 17th century, has been hailed as a paradigm of representative democracy. On Tuesday, voters in 56 Vermont towns, more than one-fifth of the state's 246 municipalities, became perhaps the first in the country to participate in a formal referendum on U.S. involvement in Iraq.

By Tuesday evening -- it snowed all day long -- 39 of the towns had passed a version of a resolution that asked state legislators to study the local impact of National Guard deployments, the congressional delegation to reassert state authority over Guard units, and the federal government to bring U.S. troops home from the war.

Another three towns tabled the resolution; four rejected it, including Underhill, where 53 of its residents out of a population of 3,000 are deployed with the Guard, according to the Associated Press. Other towns had not yet tallied their votes.

The resolution is nonbinding and carries no formal weight -- just the sentiments of the tens of thousands of Vermonters who voted on it.

With this small state having among the nation's highest per-capita rates of Iraq casualties and National Guard deployment, Vermont has paid a heavy price since the conflict began. Of the 11 Vermonters killed, four were serving in the Guard.

A petition drive by local activists placed the initiative before dozens of this year's annual meetings, which are usually preoccupied with the nitty-gritty of local governance, such as school budgets. In some places, the resolution was dealt with no more fanfare than any other item on the printed agendas known as "warnings." In others, civil but pointed arguments dominated discussion.

"Vermont's always had a penchant for shooting its mouth off, and I mostly mean that in a positive way," said Frank M. Bryan, a University of Vermont professor and author of the book "Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How it Works."

He cites the example set by the Connecticut River Valley town of Thetford, Vt., which on Saturday passed a watered-down version of the Iraq resolution. In 1974, Thetford became the first municipality to call for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon. In 1982, more than 160 Vermont towns passed resolutions demanding a nuclear freeze.

The state's three-member congressional delegation voted unanimously against invading Iraq, and Vermont (pop. 619,000) became a nationwide symbol of antiwar sentiment with the presidential candidacy of former governor Howard Dean, who now heads the Democratic National Committee.

But the state also has one of the nation's highest rates of military service.

"The hope is that this will begin a dialogue, that there will be a debate about this issue that will restore more authority over state governments," said retired math professor John Lamperti, 72, of Norwich (pop. about 3,500).

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