Two months after an election in which Amherst overwhelmingly decided to adopt a new form of government, a small group of diehard Town Meeting members have sought a delay in the Town Council election, which would result in extra burdens for voters and diminished voter participation.
Four of them went to Boston Wednesday to challenge the schedule for the election of Amherst’s first 13-member Town Council. They told a Legislative committee that the schedule would discriminate against students, even though the alternative schedule would make students less likely to vote.
Also appearing before the committee Wednesday were Andy Churchill and Mandi Jo Hanneke, the chair and vice chair of the now-defunct Charter Commission, and Select Board member Andy Steinberg. Town Manager Paul Bockelman and attorney Lauren Goldberg (an expert on election law) were also there.
The issues here are complex. I’ll try to summarize them as simply as possible.
Amherst is asking for Legislative approval to hold a preliminary election for the Town Council on Sept. 4 and the general election on Nov. 6. These dates coincide with the state elections. (The reason for the preliminary election is to avoid the election of councilors by a small plurality of voters.) Town Meeting approved making this request April 30 by a 127-72 vote.
“Scheduling our local election on the same dates as the state primary and general elections is a matter of common sense,” Churchill told the Legislative committee. “It will increase voter participation, which was our main goal. It will also reduce costs and logistical challenges, compared to holding four separate elections.”
Without Legislative approval, the preliminary election would be Dec. 11 and the general election Jan. 24, 2019, according to the charter. This default option would require Amherst voters to go to the polls four times in five months, and it would place the election campaign during the holidays and the colleges’ winter break. It would double the town’s election expenses and would make it harder for the council to participate in the creation of next year’s budget. A snowstorm or extreme cold on one of those days could force a postponement.
No one raised concerns about the impact of the election schedule on students during the 65 public meetings of the Charter Commission and the hundreds of comments it received, Churchill pointed out. Neither the Town’s attorneys nor the Attorney General’s office found any problems with the timing of the elections.
“This was followed by six months of a visible, robust and hard-fought election campaign,” Churchill said. “Opponents threw everything but the kitchen sink at the proposal, yet they never raised any objection to the timing of the election.”
It was only after the special Town Meeting was scheduled for April 30 that five charter opponents, all of them lawyers, raised the issue of college students’ ability to vote and run in a preliminary election scheduled for the beginning of the school year. Town Meeting rejected their argument, but the Select Board moved up to May 1 the date when candidates for Town Council could take out nomination papers.
Two of those lawyers, Janet McGowan and Sarah McKee, came to Boston Wednesday to challenge the request for a special act. They were joined by Town Meeting members Vira Douangmany Cage and Andrea Battle. Also there was UMass student Adam Hoole. They claimed that the election schedule compromises the ability of students to run for the Town Council.
“I love Amherst, but it’s a place where you will find a variety of strongly held and loudly expressed opinions on just about everything,” Churchill told the Legislative committee. “In a vocal, engaged town like that, complaints from a small number of people should be recognized as normal noise, and not a controversy or crisis that would lead the Legislature to withhold permission for a special election supported by 58 percent of the voters and 64 percent of our local legislative body.”
He added that if Amherst is in violation of students’ constitutional rights with this election schedule, then so is every other community in the state with college students in it. “That simply doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Two years ago, defenders of the status quo in Amherst opposed the creation of a charter commission. Voters decided otherwise. Then they tried to convince the Charter Commission to make only small tweaks to Town Meeting. They failed. Then they tried to convince voters to reject the new charter. They failed. Then they tried to convince Town Meeting not to seek a Legislative act for the election schedule. They failed.
Now they are trying to convince the Legislature to deny the special act, based on student voting rights, putting the election on a date when many students are away.
What’s next? Filing a lawsuit to challenge the new charter, forcing Amherst taxpayers to foot the bill for enormous legal fees? I have always thought that after losing by 17 percentage points in the charter election, opponents would be too ashamed to go against the clear wishes of voters by challenging the result in court.
My advice? Don’t do it. Accept the result of the election. Consider running for Town Council, so we can debate the real issues that Amherst confronts and then let the voters decide. Let’s move forward.