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Town Meeting: Do elections matter?

Nick Grabbe

Voters should be able to choose the people who make decisions on their behalf.

In Amherst, the sovereignty of voters has been eroding for some time. Town Meeting has come to resemble a club whose members are largely self-selected and have a weak mandate from voters.

That’s because when voters go to the polls in the annual town election, more than half of the precincts have provided no choices, or minimal choices, among Town Meeting candidates. And since there has been little discussion of issues beforehand, voters often just pick the candidates whose names they recognize. In the last 11 local elections, there has been an average of only 13.2 percent more candidates than seats to be filled.

Many voters have concluded that Town Meeting elections in Amherst are virtually meaningless. Faced with few real choices and busy lives, voters have increasingly opted out and stayed home. In the last six local elections in which there have been no extra questions on the ballot, the average voter participation has been only 10.6 percent.

(More election data is at the end of this post.)

This is a big problem. Not enough citizens have felt invested in the Town Meeting system, and it can’t adequately represent the people when the people are no longer participating. There aren’t enough candidates even though it takes only one signature (one’s own) to get on the ballot.

Most residents want to be informed and involved, but they don’t see Town Meeting, with its three-hour sessions spread out over 10 to 15 nights a year, as a productive or satisfying way to spend their time. We don’t have enough candidates to create real choices for voters, or enough voter participation to make the results meaningful, and yet we have given Town Meeting vast authority over the town, including the ultimate power over budgets and zoning.

When I brought up Amherst’s dismal election statistics at Charter Commission meetings, some members said they were OK with low  voter turnout. “I don’t share your faith in the ballot box,” said member Gerry Weiss. “One only needs to look at our national and statewide elections to see how well the ballot box works. As Mark Twain said, ‘If voting accomplished anything, they wouldn’t let us do it.’”

Weiss contended that low voter participation shows that most residents are satisfied with the way town government operates. I think it signifies alienation and a feeling of powerlessness.

He pointed to Brookline as a model of a town with a well-functioning representative Town Meeting. But I found that Brookline has an even worse record than Amherst in terms of voter participation and competitive elections.

One Town Meeting member who attended Charter Commission meetings spoke of Town Meeting as a bulwark of democracy. I found that she had been “elected” in a precinct that didn’t have enough candidates, so there was no chance that she would not be elected. Does that indicate a well-functioning democracy?

Why are we so apprehensive about having free, fair, wide-open elections, with voters questioning multiple candidates about their positions? What happened to “consent of the governed”? In this town of well-educated residents, why can’t we trust them to make intelligent decisions?

There’s a better way. Under the charter proposal to be voted on March 27, each voter will choose three at-large council members and two from his or her part of town. Elections will take place in November, every two years,  and so they will be recognizably important events, creating greater interest among candidates and voters. There will be greater transparency in what voters are choosing.

There will be debates among candidates, and voters will be able to evaluate their positions, experience and character. Ranked-choice voting will ensure that successful candidates are acceptable to a majority of voters.

This new system will provide two vital features of democracy that don’t exist now: a measure of public opinion and the obligation for decision-makers to listen to their constituents. And elections will matter.

Here is some data on Amherst’s local elections:

  • From 2007 to 2017, the average number of Town Meeting seats available per year was 106, and the average number of candidates was 120. (If those numbers seem high, it’s because in 2012 all 240 seats were open.)
  • The number of Town Meeting candidates increased to 139 in 2017 (for 87 seats), probably because of the reaction to the vote on elementary school reconfiguration.
  • From 2006 to 2017, 61 percent of precincts had no or minimal choices among Town Meeting candidates (defined as more seats than candidates, the same number, or one more candidate than seats).
  • Student-heavy Precincts 3, 4, 5 and 10 had the most of these low-candidate elections, but every precinct had at least four in those 12 years.
  • From 2007 to 2015, 388 Town Meeting incumbents sought reelection and 371 were successful (95.6 percent).
  • From 1991 to 2015, 90.7 percent of candidates for Town Meeting were elected. From 1971 to 1990, 77.2 percent were elected.
  • In the 1970s, only 4.5 percent of Town Meeting members were elected with fewer than 100 votes. From 2011 to 2015, 63 percent were.
  • From 1971 to 1975, the average turnout in local elections was 33.6 percent, and from 2006 to 2010 it averaged 20.9 percent. But from 2011 to 2015, it fell to an average of 10.2 percent, bottoming out at 6.6 percent in 2013.
  • Voter turnout increased to 17.7 percent in 2016, probably because of the Charter Commission vote, and to 25 percent in 2017, probably because of the school vote.
  • Competition for seats declined elsewhere. From 2004 to 2008, all 10 races for Select Board and School Committee races had more candidates than seats available. From 2009 to 2016, only five of 12 races did.

Comments 7

  1. With all due respect to both Mark Twain and Gerry Weiss, voting certainly does accomplish something. Voting (plus the elite’s disdain for and distrust of their fellow citizens) is the reason the electoral map of the United States looks the way it does.

    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2016/

    I know that some Americans believe that other Americans should not be trusted with the franchise. And that is exactly why we have elections; so that the former do not ride roughshod over the latter.

  2. So interesting. I have heard this view as well, that the voting public is not to be trusted. However I am hopeful that this new proposal will educate more in our communities who then have a voice about the direction for our town.

  3. Town Meeting is defended as “pure democracy”.

    But then we hear skepticism from many of those same people about “how well the ballot box works.”

    The contradiction lies in the fact that those arguing whatever they think will stick are happy with the outcomes from Town Meeting. They think that they will not get the same results, results they are happy with, from straight-up electoral contests.

    This upcoming charter vote is about pure power politics, and who has power in this community. When Town Meeting sessions get protracted, and 3 hour evenings run on for several weeks, with no end certain, THAT is a result of Town Meeting member power being exerted from the floor, with votes to end debate failing again and again. The effect year after year is the creation of a reasonable perception: that Town Meeting service is just too much of a burden for so many because of assumed impositions on other important personal and family demands. Free time is the coin of the realm in our town. Some have it, others don’t, and I would suggest that this skews what we get from government.

    So those folks, the ones excluded, do they have power under this system?

  4. Thank you, Nick, for putting in all this energy to research the data that brought us to where we stand now. That quote from Mark Twain was funny.

    In Town Meeting every resident has the choice to represent themselves. You can look at it as a weakness (they don’t know enough to make the more complex decisions, etc), or as a strength (Town Meeting is a sample of only the people who live in town, so everyone voting in TM is substantially associated with the town’s doings).

    Same with a Council – it has weaknesses (voting will be based on lobbying, so which group’s candidates will be elected is going to be influenced by the “haves” more than the “have nots”) and strengths (decisions, which will make substantial changes to the town can be rushed through quickly and efficiently).

    And one good side-effect of the commission has so far been to entice more citizen participation, as you also note above. Hopefully TM will continue to use the extra people and the ideas coming out of this new dialog to make the current system better and more empowering for Amherst residents.

    1. You say “In Town Meeting every resident has the choice to represent themselves.” That ignores a big problem with Town Meeting. Every resident can’t represent themselves. Amherst does not have an Open Town Meeting where any voter can show up to Town Meeting and vote. Instead, Amherst has a Representative Town Meeting–only 240 residents in town can vote. The other 15,000+ voters cannot vote on the floor of Town Meeting. So, when a Town Meeting member says “I just vote my conscience” that Town Meeting member in effect is saying “I don’t care what you think, even though you can’t vote and I can.” When a Town Meeting member has that opinion, that member has effectively shut out the voters in that member’s precinct from having any say in the process–especially since it’s likely that, given the Town’s voting statistics, as outlined by Nick, the voter didn’t even have a choice in whether that member got elected. That’s not democracy.

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    Author

    Gabor, the things you fear in the charter are the things that exist right now. It is Town Meeting members who are the “haves,” as shown by the fact that 80 percent of them are homeowners, compared to 49 percent of voters. You fear lobbying and the influence of large donations of money, but the largest donation in recent years was the $5,000 that Sylvia Brandt gave to SASS, which used the money to lobby voters and Town Meeting members. You fear that the council will rush through decisions quickly; Town Meeting must decide issues the same night it hears arguments, whereas the council will be able to deliberate over weeks or months, soliciting more information and asking as many questions as necessary.

  6. Voting is what really matters – what does it mean when 80% of Amherst voters do not vote for Town Meeting? I appreciate the efforts to find something that we would all (or even a majority of us) vote for regularly.

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