Opinion: The Council at One Year – VOTER APATHY CONFERS OUTSIZED INFLUENCE TO LOCAL PAC

Current District Five polling place - Crocker Farm School. Photo: Art Keene

In the second Town election since the new Charter took effect, poor voter turnout, a dearth of choices, and slate voting resulted in a sweep for incumbents.  

Low Voter Turnout 
Proponents of the Charter claimed that voter turnout would significantly improve under the new form of government. They pointed to low voter participation during annual Town elections previously held in March and asserted that scheduling elections in November would bring more people to the polls. They also believed that a Town Council form of government and the elimination of staggered terms in favor of wholesale elections every two years would inspire more participation of voters at the polls.

The promise of enthusiastic participation was unfulfilled in the first year of the new Charter.  Voter turnout at the November 2019 election, which did not include Council seats, was 2,371 (13.7% of registered voters), a middling result compared to previous March annual local elections in Amherst (ranging from 7% to 32%, with a mean of 17%, over the previous decade).  The election for the seating of the first Town Council in November 2018 was an anomaly in that it took place during an even-numbered year and so was held on the same day as a state-wide election. Even so, the turnout for the local ballot (43%) lagged behind that for the state ballot (50%), and a significant proportion of local voters withheld their support for any of the candidates. More on this later. 

In addition, voter turnout must be understood in the context of the trend in the number of registered voters over time. For November 2019, the Town reported 17,269 registered voters, but in November 2018 it was 21,990. Where did those nearly 5,000 voters go in just one year? The answer, according to the Town Clerk, is that those voters were purged from the voting rolls; this resulted in the lowest number of registered voters in Amherst in the last 8 years.  

This purge is a routine event in voter registration and there are a number of reasons for an individual to be removed from the rolls. Barring a direct notification to the Town Clerk, however, it takes multiple election cycles to verify that individuals should be removed, including not voting in two consecutive national elections. That brings us to the very large increase in registered voters in 2012, more than 6,000 new voters for a total of 22,441, probably related to President Obama’s first election. It seems that we are only now seeing a “correction” back to pre-Obama voter numbers. These fluxes in the number of registered voters cannot be attributed to total population, which has only increased by about 1,000 residents over the same time period, according to the Census Bureau.

The pertinent net result is that voter turnout (as a percentage of registered voters) over the past several years has likely been artificially lowered by a large number of college-aged voters remaining on the voting rolls long past the time that they have moved out of town. This makes voter participation in November 2019 even more anemic compared to historic values because the 13.7% turnout was 13.7% of a significantly smaller total number of registered voters. Such poor turnout is not unprecedented in Massachusetts municipalities that have transitioned from Representative Town Meeting to Town Council forms of government. A review of election results in Randolph, MA (available on that Town’s website) showed that voter turnouts averaged 27% in the decade before adopting a Council form of government and have averaged 19% since then.  

District 5 continues to dominate town-wide voting (nearly 40% of votes cast) while Districts 1 and 3 lag far behind their proportional representation on the Town Council (each accounts for no more 10% of the vote total but enjoys twice that proportion in representation). This is consistent with historical trends in local elections of high voter turnout in Precincts 7 and 8 (which make up District 5) and low turnout in Precincts with large college student populations. 

Blank”, the Big Winner
The November 2019 ballot was dominated by uncontested races and incumbents. There were only six candidates for as many Library Board of Trustee seats, incumbents all. The two Housing Authority incumbents were joined by 1 newcomer for 3 uncontested seats and the incumbent Oliver Will Smith Elector also claimed that seat by default. The only contested seats were for School Committee in a race where 4 incumbents and 3 challengers vied for 5 seats.

With no opportunity to impact results, a large percentage of voters cast no vote for any of the Library Trustee candidates. Of the possible 14,226 votes (six votes for each of the 2371 voters), nearly 40% (5,533) went to no one or to individuals not on the ballot. This “Blank” vote outpaced all of the actual candidates by a large margin (1,491 for the highest vote getter).

“Blank” also did well in the School Committee contest scoring higher than any of the candidates with 20% of the possible votes (2,366 out of 11,855 compared to 1,776, or 15%, for the highest ranking individual).  

This “none of the above” type of vote casting was also seen in the first Town Councilor election in November 2018. Between 14 and 20% of votes in the five districts went to none of the District Councilors running for office. Fully 25% of votes for At-Large Councilor went unclaimed by the contestants, again easily giving “Blank” the highest vote tally (7,091 out of 28,485 possible votes).

Polarized Politics and the Effect of a Single De Facto Party
As it has in the past, Amherst Forward used its contact list to advise recipients to vote for a slate of candidates, including all incumbents in the School Committee race plus one of the three challengers (Ben Herrington). An analysis of the results of this race provides evidence of this slate voting as three candidates (Demling, McDonald, Spitzer) had unusually similar vote counts, differing by only 1 to 10 votes in each voting precinct. Two candidates, Eric Nakajima and Ben Herrington, seemed to enjoy slightly more broad-based support as their vote totals surpassed those of the other slate candidates by a small margin. Nakajima and Herrington each captured 15% of the overall votes while Demling, McDonald, and Spitzer won with 13% each. The challenger candidates who ran on their own, Katie Kazdowski and Lauren Mills, could not overcome the advantages of both incumbency and PAC support. 

It appears that Amherst Forward influenced about 60% of those who voted in the November 2019 election (almost 1,500 voters). Although this represents only about 8% of the town’s registered voters, the fact that 87% of those voters did not, in fact, vote means that Amherst Forward’s impact was, and may continue to be, significant.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: The Council at One Year – VOTER APATHY CONFERS OUTSIZED INFLUENCE TO LOCAL PAC

  1. It’s disheartening to read these voting numbers and analysis. I am often the only member of the public at Town Council committee meetings which I attend since I am on the Planning Board. At other public hearings and forums, public turnout is low. Often half the people in the room are Council members, town staff members and members of town boards and committees. Amherst’s shrinking public participation in the voting booth, as candidates for office and at public hearings is of grave concern. Fewer and fewer residents know about what is going on in our new city government. Fewer and fewer residents participate. This was the future predicted by many and it’s not clear how to reverse it.

  2. Thank you for your comments Ms. McGowan. Good to see you here as well as in the public meetings of Amherst.
    My assessment may be different about the lack of participation. “…fewer know about what is going on…” may actually be the opposite – coupled w/the reality of what can be done about it… The town may have the same near 50/50 split on Jeffersonian/participatory governance v expedience, modernity that existed around the time of town governance change. The trends you cite could be a direct reflection of that dynamic?

    Chad Fuller

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