Amherst Town Council Will Reconsider Its Vote To Consolidate Eight Polling Locations Into One Site At High School

The Amherst Town Council quietly posted an alternative plan for Amherst’s polling places to the Town’s website yesterday afternoon (8/5), after widespread criticism of its decision on August 3 to hold all voting at Amherst Regional High School

The Town has upwards of 17,000 registered voters, and concerns arose about the prospect of COVID-19 transmission at a single site, if thousands were to vote in-person for the November Presidential election. Public comments also focused on the prospect of long lines which might prohibit the elderly, disabled, working people and those with small children from voting, along with residents who lack personal transportation.   

On the town website’s “Amherst Bulletin Board,” the Council stated that it will reconsider its action of August 3, and “vote on polling locations” at a virtual Town Council meeting on Monday, August 10 at 6:30 pm.  The meeting will be available at this link, and the public may also call in at (301) 715-8592, and enter webinar ID: 944 0081 5031.

Yesterday, the Town Council reposted its initial “option” for a single polling site, but added a second “option”. The new plan is similar to a motion made by Town Councilor Cathy Schoen on Monday. It calls for keeping all eight usual polling places, to which 10 voting precincts are assigned. However, it would take two of three voting precincts currently assigned to the Bangs Community Center and shift them to the high school, to reduce numbers congregating at the Bangs. Precincts four and 10, which include neighborhoods near the high school, were the ones flagged for possible relocation.

The Town has until August 12 to vote on changes to polling places, according to Debra O’Malley, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office. That date is 20 days before the Sept. 1 state primary. The Town Council’s vote on Monday was based on incorrect information, that state deadlines were too near to allow for further consideration of polling places.

The newly-posted Town Council option notes that the Centers for  Disease Control and Prevention advises increasing, rather than decreasing, the number of polling sites due to COVID-19.  The new option document cites “an overwhelmingly negative response” to the single-site consolidation plan. “We heard from many people by email, phone, during public comment … and after the Council meeting,” it states. The potential to suppress the vote was a significant concern, along with potential for a lower voter turnout which could disparately impact minorities, lower-income residents without cars, and working people who cannot take much time off to vote.

Questions remain about the legal merit of Monday’s vote to consolidate, made on the basis of incorrect information about the deadline to file polling site changes with the Secretary of State’s Office. The consolidation plan, which had failed on an initial vote, passed on a revote. However, that revote violated the Town Council’s procedural rules, which prevents revotes from taking place at the same meeting, pushing them instead to the next scheduled meeting. 

It is unclear how much the Secretary of State’s Office knew about the single-site plan. O’Malley, in a phone interview on Tuesday, said she was under the impression that the 10 voting precincts would be voting in separate rooms at the high school, including “multiple gymnasiums.”

The high school has two adjoining gyms, and an adjoining weight room. However, the initial Town Council plan calls for the smaller gym to be a “staging area” while the larger one would be for voting  by all 10 precincts, according to a July 20 presentation by Town Clerk Shavena Martin. A single entry would be used.  

In email correspondence yesterday, O’Malley said that Amherst voters would be separated under the consolidation plan. “As you can see in the floor plans and photos provided by the (Town) Clerk’s Office, there are separate spaces that the town intends to use for the polling places, splitting the precincts among them for spacing purposes,” she wrote. 

The Amherst Indy requested copies of initial guidance sent from the Secretary of State to town clerks across Massachusetts. Those documents, which O’Malley forwarded yesterday, included a May 1 email. It warns town clerks that reducing polling places and staffing is “very likely” to lead to more crowding in the polling places. A July 20 email notes that cities and towns with two or more precincts in one location need to determine if the health of voters and election workers would be better served by separating precincts “into different polling places.”

In an email on Tuesday, August 5, two employees of the Secretary of State’s Office communicated about the Amherst consolidation plan. Bridget Simmons Murphy wrote to Michelle Tassinari that in calls to Amherst Town Clerk Shavena Martin, Martin “was clear that there are 2 gyms where there would be ample space for 5 precincts in each space,” seeming to indicate a misunderstanding or miscommunication about the Town’s plan. Murphy added that she asked Martin for “a site plan of each gym layout” but had yet to receive it.

The new polling place option notes that distance to polling sites is important, with eight current sites distributed throughout the town, including “many” in walking distance of low and moderate income apartment and housing complexes. In North Amherst, most residents live within a mile or two of a polling site, according to the new report, while the high school is four to five miles away for some South Amherst residents.

The new option states that voting by mail should be widely encouraged, but may be “less trusted” by vulnerable groups, and is not a substitute for easy physical access to polls on Election Day. It notes that college students coming to Amherst late this month won’t have sufficient time to request and receive mail-in ballots for the Sept. 1 state primary. 

The Town Council vote on the single-site plan was contentious, with six councilors, including Cathy Schoen, Dorothy Pam, Pat De Angelis, Sarah Swartz, Shalini Bahl-Milne and Darcy DuMont voting against it. The seven propopents were Chair Lynn Griesemer, Vice Chairperson Mandi Jo Hanneke, along with Alisa Brewer, Stephen Schreiber, George Ryan, Evan Ross, and Andy Steinberg. 

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