One of the arguments put forth in support of the council form of government was that it would engage more citizens through consequential voting. Council candidates, the argument went, would have to stake out defined positions and be accountable for them. They would have to earn votes by communicating with citizens. This kind of engagement would greatly increase citizen awareness of and stake in local issues, thus also expanding the extent to which the governors would have to pay attention to the governed. A new era of invigorated local democracy — engaging the many versus the few — was promised.
So, how’s that going? Many have commented on the size of the turnout last Tuesday, but let’s look more closely and put it in context. The graph above shows voter turnout for town elections over the past decade. A few things immediately jump out. First, if there was not something special (an override, a referendum) to attract more attention, the typical town election — at which the entire legislature and a portion of the executive was determined — drew roughly 1,900 voters on average. The override in 2010 drew about 5,000, and this is consistent with earlier votes (e.g., the High School renovation/addition vote in 1995 drew 4,947). “Big” referendum questions, like the charter vote, could draw up to 6,000 (true in 2018 and also in 2003 and 2005). So the evidence is strong that Amherst citizens have been eager to vote for identifiable issues, but much less so for their (less identifiable?) representatives.
Until last Tuesday. At 9,495, the first council vote shattered the pattern. But before we draw too hasty a conclusion, let’s look at the context. The council vote was doubled up with the state election, something that will not happen in the future once the terms for councilors revert to their normal two years (the initial three-year term is a one-time-only adjustment). We will never know for sure how much of last Tuesday’s turnout reflected interest in the council, and how much spilled over from the state election. But we can make an educated guess.
First, last Tuesday there were actually two parallel elections, and one had to take and complete a town ballot as well as a state one. Ninety percent did so, suggesting at least some interest in the local races.
Second, we can compare 2018 with 2014, the last state election. In that year there was a hotly contested gubernatorial race (Baker vs. Coakley) and several controversial ballot questions (e.g., expanding the Bottle Bill, banning casino gambling). But that state-only turnout was 7,934, 72% of the turnout last Tuesday. By contrast, this year there were no marquee state races, although there were a couple of ballot questions that attracted interest.
Third, we can look at the September preliminary election for the council, which was doubled up with the state primary election. This produced one of our historically high local turnouts, but the very hot contests for both state representative and state senator obviously drew many to the polls. Nearly all who showed up (98%) took town ballots.
Finally, we can look at the facts on the ground. Here I will draw on my own experience and perspective, and invite others to do the same. The preliminary council election occurred on the day after Labor Day, a tough sell in a town like Amherst. But the local races had already begun to heat up, with many lawns signs, mailings, and candidate coffees in evidence. Having been on the ballot many times as a Select Board candidate, it was my observation that even the preliminary council election drew more interest than perhaps all but the most hotly contested Select Board/School Committee races of the past 30 years.
The council campaigns for the final election took that to a whole new level. The blizzard of lawn signs and mailings, and especially the extensive door-to-door canvassing — a real rarity even in contested Select Board races — reflected a level of voter engagement I had never seen before in Amherst. And why not? There was a lot at stake, with legislative priorities for the next three years on the line. But that’s the point. The election mattered, and voters responded with interest and action.
For what it’s worth, my guess is that the final council election, even if it had stood alone, would have drawn historically high participation, perhaps 8,000 voters or more (a number that exceeds the previous four annual town elections without a referendum question — 2012-15 — combined).
So I believe we have indeed entered a new era of citizen involvement, and the first council election augurs well for the future. Will this level of interest be sustained? That is in part up to the new councilors, and their effectiveness in executing the charter’s mandate for transparency and citizen involvement. But mostly it’s up to us. I have little doubt that, if the first group of councilors falls short, in three years there will be plenty of interest in throwing the rascals out.
Bryan Harvey is the former chair of the Select Board and the second Charter Commission. He is the spouse of Lynn Griesemer, recently elected to the Town Council. He recently retired as Associate Chancellor and Chief Planning Officer at UMass.