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I recently read a news article which said Republican lawmakers are not holding "town halls" because they are getting hijacked by astroturf protesters. Apparently "astroturfing" is when wealthy political organizations pay for buses, food and other fees and compensation to transport protesters in from big cities, often long distances from the actual venue.

Not having ever been to one of these "town halls", this seems strange to me. I live in New England where "town halls" are a real thing, not a fake political stunt, and normally non-residents are not allowed to the town meeting, except as passive observers. Where I live, the town is ruled by the town meeting and although I suppose a non-resident could walk in, they would have to give their address and if that address was not a local address, the selectmen could have them ejected or not permit them to speak.

I suppose that these other so-called "town halls" are something different then and feature just a mob of unruly random people from wherever shouting questions at the speaker. Is that the idea? What exactly are these things?

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    From the article: "MacArthur didn’t offer evidence that protesters are paid and bused. Spokeswoman Camille Gallo said MacArthur "was simply referring to reports that he had read about outside groups attending congressional town halls.'' Dissenting constituents can be so bothersome, so it is convenient to make up a story instead of facing them. – jalynn2 Feb 14 '17 at 15:13
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    In the US, actual public municipal meetings are happy when anyone shows up. But these partisan town halls are really just PR events. There's no laws regarding them. They are creations of each political party and they run them as they see fit. – user1530 Feb 14 '17 at 20:16
  • @blip In theory, the purpose of this type of 'town hall' event is for a member of Congress to have regular communication with their constituency to keep them up-to-date on what's going on in Washington and to hear and address their concerns. – reirab Feb 14 '17 at 22:55
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    @blip like at a Litchfield, NH meeting: youtu.be/3saU5racsGE?t=4m7s – Nick T Feb 14 '17 at 23:57
  • @reirab right. But it's still just a construct of the party. It's not any sort of legally mandated thing. – user1530 Feb 15 '17 at 4:43
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You're correct that the New England-specific meaning of "town hall" is distinct from the meaning when used elsewhere in the US. As you pointed out, a town hall in the New England region is a specific form of government, in which actual decisions regarding town operations are made by eligible participants.

The "large group of people speaking to a governmental representative" style of "town hall" is really just a meeting, with (typically) no formal structure beyond that agreed to by the attendees. And they can often become unruly when there is a matter of contentious debate serving as the topic or focus of the meeting.

The "astroturf attendees" argument is one that has repeatedly been made in these circumstances in years past, and the proof (or not) of that assertion is often best seen in later elections.

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There is no official town hall standard that applies across the country. Probably the best example of this is the "town hall" style debates that you will see during presidential debates. They aren't in a town hall and the only thing that is really different about them is that one or two audience members ask direct questions, so the stage has to look a little different.

So all that is to say there is no law that says a town hall can only have residence of its town. Some town halls will end up just being a political rally for the candidate there. Some will end up with unruly protesters from out of town. And some will be, like yours, 'normal', productive, meeting and decision points.

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    And some will end up with unruly (or ruly?) crowd of local residents upset about local or national policy. That's ultimately how the "tea party" movement started. – BradC Feb 14 '17 at 17:32
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    Most claims of people being "bused in" for political gatherings in substantial numbers are largely made without evidence or foundation. Also, people organizing together and chartering a bus is not necessarily an indication of deep pockets manipulation. That's how people often travel to grassroots events. It's most often trotted out as an excuse to dismiss substantial opposition or the unpopularity of a politician's stance. – PoloHoleSet Feb 14 '17 at 18:13
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    @PoloHoleSet The whole point of a town hall is that it's aimed at local residents. If you're having to charter a bus to attend one, that's your first clue that you're not the target audience. – reirab Feb 14 '17 at 22:42
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    @reirab For a Montana Congressperson, constituency can come from very far away. Here where I live in western Washington, a "town hall" for the Key Peninsula could also easily benefit from buses shuttling attendees from scattered collection points. It'd be almost pointless to restrict attendance to residents within some 'city limits' area in a lot of non-metropolitan areas for non-traditional/political 'town halls', but I don't doubt that it's attempted. A bus-load arriving anywhere close should be pretty obvious. – user2338816 Feb 15 '17 at 10:54
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    Senators represent the entire state. So a Senator holding a town hall should expect people from anywhere in the state to attend. – jalynn2 Feb 15 '17 at 15:55
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The only "town hall" I attended was a meeting in a conference room at the municipal building. I just walked in and sat down. The Representative stood at a podium and called on people with raised hands. We'd ask questions and he'd answer.

This did not seem to be a formal meeting in any way. No one checked identification much less residency. The presumption seemed to be that no one but an actual constituent would want to bother. It was just a chance for constituents to meet with the Representative. Some of them would be blowing off steam about the government. Some would ask about legislative initiatives.

I don't know whether the more modern form includes people being bused in from outside the district. I suspect that if they continue to have disruptions, Representatives will add requirements that people have to be residents and will kick out disruptors.

Note: we also have municipal meetings where the local elected officials conduct business. The "town hall" I attended may have been in the same conference room. But those meetings don't normally have federal elected officials at them as far as I know. It wasn't a working meeting.

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