Letter: Council Must Reject Polling Place Consolidation

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Editor’s note:  This letter was sent to members of the Town Council on Saturday August 1.

I learned last night via the Amherst Bulletin about the proposed plan to consolidate all polling locations for the upcoming elections to the high school.  As you may know, I have practiced voting rights law for more than 25 years and am an expert in this field.  Free Speech For People, the organization I direct, is currently engaged in key voting rights cases in several states, including cases in Pennsylvania and Texas, on behalf of the NAACP State Conferences of each state, challenging unsafe and unequal voting conditions.  A primary focus of those cases is to ensure that the states expand rather than reduce polling locations, especially in the midst of this pandemic.  

The plan to consolidate all polling locations to the high school is, however well-intentioned, extremely misguided and ill-informed.  It will cause longer lines at the polls, leading to longer wait times for voters, thereby suppressing the vote.  It will cause voter confusion as voters learn on Election Day that they cannot vote where they usually do.  It will disenfranchise voters who cannot wait in line or do not have the time or transportation to travel to the high school in order to vote.  And, in the midst of this public health crisis, it will endanger voters who choose to or who need to vote in person.  The more people need to wait in line with many other voters, the more likely it will lead to transmission of the virus.  Voters should not have to face an increased risk to their public health and their lives in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote.

I fully understand the challenges that Amherst, like any community, faces in carrying out this election in the midst of this pandemic.  I understand that many poll workers who are of a vulnerable age will not want to work the polls during this election cycle.  But the answer is not to consolidate polling locations and make it harder for people to vote.  Amherst should be proactive about this and recruit and train younger poll workers for this election cycle.  It should ensure that, at a minimum, all precincts have the same number of polling sites as in past elections, even if that means that new sites need to be identified because certain polling sites are not available at this time.

I am very concerned that Amherst is about to make a decision on this that could lead to disaster on election day for the primary and for the general election.  I intend to seek time to speak during the public comment period at Monday’s Town Council meeting to express my concerns.  And, I am not just asking the Town Council to take my word on this.  Ask other voting rights experts and ask public health experts.  This plan is the wrong way to go.

I urge you to vote no on this plan.


John Bonifaz

John Bonifaz is a constitutional lawyer and national leader in fighting for voting rights and our democracy.  He has lived in Amherst since 2007.

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9 thoughts on “Letter: Council Must Reject Polling Place Consolidation

  1. I entirely agree, and want to further add that one immediate effect will be to disenfranchise on-campus college students. We just successfully encouraged students to vote in previous elections by (finally) bringing early voting stations to campus. Why take such an enormous step backward?

  2. Thanks, Laura. You are absolutely right that this plan will disenfranchise on-campus college students, among many others. I urge everyone who shares these concerns to attend the virtual Amherst Town Council meeting on Monday night and speak up about this in the public comment period. The meeting begins at 6:30 pm and the public comment period ends at 7:30 pm. Once you have joined the meeting via the Zoom link or by phone you will need to indicate that you wish to speak. Here are the instructions for that:

    To join the Council meeting via Zoom teleconferencing:
    Go to https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/95656933791
    To indicate you wish to make a comment click “raise hand”
    To join the Council meeting via telephone:
    Call (646) 876-9923 or (312) 626-6799 Enter webinar ID when prompted: 956 5693 3791
    When prompted to enter your participant number press #
    To indicate you wish to make a comment, press *9 on your telephone
    During the public comment period, the Council President will recognize members of the public. When called on, please identify yourself by stating your full name and address.

  3. I also agree with John Bonifaz’s concerns; I furthermore urge an expansion of early voting facilities at secured, outdoor locations (e.g. under tents on the Town Common) rather than in the cramped quarters of Town Hall.

  4. Coupling a swift, one week public notice plan, a drastic reduction of access to voters and a short communication window to inform are rather draconian measures. Why weren’t locations, north, central (3 rooms at Bangs) and south (Munson), somewhat in line with our districts already considered? And what are the issues of not opening the North Fire Station for one day use?

  5. Thank you, John.
    Do you know of any regulation against holding polling outdoors? Does the Secretary of State permit outdoor polling, under tents, especially in this year of a pandemic?

  6. I hope John Bonifaz will be able to cite chapter and verse from MGL for an affirmation that outdoor voting is possible, or at least the lack of any prohibition.

    But it was once common for voting in the North American colonies, including Massachusetts, to take place outdoors (e.g. on the courtroom steps), where the privacy and security of the “ballot” left much to be desired.

    [I likely became aware of this from reading Ray Raphael’s The First American Revolution…, published under the auspices of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History… project; but also see, e.g.,

    https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-2000-11-17-0011170210-story.html

    https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx

    https://time.com/4305508/paper-ballot-history/

    for other “attempted” historical accounts.]

    Returning to the present, outdoor voting has been happening in other places in the United States this year. Here’s a recent example, albeit in southern California:

    https://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2020/05/09/outdoor-voting-25th-district-california-congress/

  7. This is a sad direction to see our town heading given recent deaths of preeminent voting rights activists, CT Vivian and John Lewis. If anything, to pay respect to their legacies, we should consider how we can make voting more accessible in Amherst. And in light of COVID-19, it would seem we would want more locations to vote, not less. Let’s promote voting ahead in every available form. I also agree with the idea of outdoor voting, in key residential areas, with a preview of that through several socially distanced voter registration events at the same sites. I recall leaving the polling place at Wildwood School in November 2008 after waiting an hour to vote that morning, and only being able to return after work and after securing childcare. I’d imagine that this November 2020 turn- out will also be high. The people this will impact the most are those who rely on public transport, or who aren’t aware until they arrive at their traditional voting site. Imagine waiting for the bus, arriving at Crocker Farm, discovering your polling place closed and then needing to wait for another bus to get to Amherst High School. This plan discourages democratic participation, at a historical moment, when we want to draw more people in, not fewer.

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