Town Council Votes To Replace Eight Polling Sites With One

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SPLIT COUNCIL NARROWLY PASSES CHANGE DESPITE WIDESPREAD OBJECTIONS

A divided 13-member Town Council voted last night, (8/3), to operate a single polling site for the Presidential election in November, in which upwards of 15,000 residents are expected to vote. A single new polling place at Amherst Regional High School will also operate for a smaller state primary on September 1.

The high school will replace eight polling places to which 10 voting precincts were specifically assigned, including sites at the Bangs Community Center, the Wildwood, Fort River and Crocker Farm Elementary Schools, the North Fire Station, the Munson Library and local churches. (Former polling sites are listed here: )

The Council’s move came after about two hours of emotional debate and public comment, with most residents who participated stating that the plan will disenfranchise working people, the elderly, and those without personal transportation.

“Long lines drive people away from voting,” said resident Gabriel Davila. “Long lines impact people of color disproportionately.”

The 7-to-6 vote pitted Town Councilors who said the current system is confusing and could not operate in full due to COVID-19 concerns, against those who said there is more danger to health and to voter access in consolidating all of the town’s voters onto a single site.

The July 29 Town Council report on the polling place consolidation is here.

Councilors Evan Ross, George Ryan, Stephen Schreiber, Andy Steinberg, Alisa Brewer, Lynn Griesemer, and Mandi Jo Hanneke voted in favor of shifting to a single site, while Cathy Schoen, Sarah Swartz, Shalini Bahl-Milne, Pat De Angelis, Darcy DuMont and Dorthy Pam voted against it.

“I don’t want to be part of creating the COVID catastrophe … this election is huge,” Pam said, adding that duration and intensity of exposure are major factors in COVID-19 transmission.

Resident Carol Gray was among those who noted that current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance calls for municipalities to  reduce numbers of voters who congregate indoors in polling locations at the same time. Gray said she was puzzled why Health Director Julie Federman agreed to the plan. “I don’t know why any local public health official would go against the CDC,” Gray said. 

Earlier, Town Manager Paul Bockelman had said “our health director is fully supportive of this.”

Although Town Clerk Shavena Martin said that her contact at the Secretary of State’s Office was supportive of the consolidation, there was no mention of any consultation with state public health officials or epidemiologists. She said the state has concerns about sites where multiple precincts vote together, like the Bangs Center, where three precincts voted. Bockelman acknowledged that the state’s apparent stand – against combined precinct sites, and yet apparently permitting a much larger merged single site – was confusing. 

The Council discussed but did not act on the suggestion of an alternate plan from Schoen, who advocated for keeping as many of the existing sites as could be operated, while adding the high school as a substitute for all sites that can’t open due to COVID-19 and social distancing concerns.  A motion that she filed is here

Schools Superintendent Michael Morris told the Town Council earlier that gyms at Fort River and Wildwood could be used for voting and then be sanitized, and that no pupils would be in the schools Sept. 1. However, Town Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke claimed that Morris could declare the schools off limits for voting at any time, and that the Amherst School Committee might object to voting taking place in the school buildings. 

Morris said he would be most concerned about voting at Crocker Farm due to the interior location of the gym, and that the school would need to close for a few days to be sanitized if voting took place there.

The Amherst Regional Public School calendar shows all schools closed to students for the November 3 Presidential election. The School Committee is expected to vote on Tuesday August 4 on a phase-in reopening model, starting with significantly reduced numbers of children in the buildings.  

On Monday, the first vote on the single-site polling place plan failed when Griesemer briefly sided with those in opposition to it. “I am feeling very, very torn by all of this,” she said.

However, immediately after that vote, the Town Clerk, Shavena Martin, informed the Town Council that she’d given them incorrect information earlier in the evening about the deadlines for filing a polling site change and site change report with the Secretary of State’s office.  While Martin tried to locate the relevant language, Hanneke called for reconsideration, saying that new information was provided and a revote was permitted. The measure then passed on the revote.

Martin said she was unsure whether a state deadline for changing polling places, of 20 days prior to an election, represented calendar days or business days, although the Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 54 Section 24 has no language modifying the word “days” or indicating that only business days qualified.  (State law indicates that a polling site change report is supposed to be filed three days before the site change itself.)

Pam, who was researching the relevant laws during the meeting, said she found a recent COVID-19-related amendment which allows polling site changes within 15 days of an election.

Nonetheless, the Town Councilors seeking to consolidate polling places were insistent that the meaning of the word “day” was unknown and that it is likely that Amherst has run out of time to make a polling place change.

“We don’t know what the definition of ‘day’ is,” Schreiber said.

Last month, Governor Charlie Baker signed a law that extended the option to vote by mail to all Massachusetts voters for both the September 1 state primary and the November 3 general election. The Secretary of State’s Office was ordered to mail applications for mail-in ballots to each of Massachusetts’ 4.5 million registered voters. Further information is here.

Martin said that her office has received 3,804 such applications. “People are thinking about their right to vote by mail,” she said.  The Secretary of State’s Office has said there will be early in-person voting held statewide August 22-28, including on Sat., August 22 and Sun., August 23.

In-person voting for the November 3 State Election, according to the State office, will take place over 15 days, with 14 days of early voting being held October 17-30. All cities and towns will be required to offer early voting on Saturday, October 17, Sunday, October 18, Saturday, October 24 and Sunday, October 25. 

Early voting schedules and locations will be posted at www.MassEarlyVote.com at least one week before early voting begins.

Martin said last night that 15,096 people voted in the 2016 Presidential election, and 4,668 in the state primary that year.

Schoen said that even if all who seek mail-in ballots this year actually vote by mail, several thousands could turn up at the high school. Meanwhile those without personal transportation, or who are unable to commit to waiting in lines might simply give up. “A real concern is that we suppress the vote and distort it,” she said.

Resident Lydia Irons said that she has lived in apartment buildings where mail sorting sometimes meant she did not get her mail on time, and that as the mother of small children, election related papers are easily misplaced. “Please do not shut down my polling place, because I won’t be able to vote, and that will be on all of you,” she said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the Town would provide tents in which voters could wait, with benches to sit on.

Debate later in the meeting centered around whether the Town Council could truly assert that the change would not have a disparate adverse impact on access to the polls, based on race, national origin, disability, income or age.  When language to that effect was read aloud by Ryan, asserting no adverse impact, Schoen said it was incorrect.

The League of Women Voters of Amherst had urged the Town Council in a statement yesterday to postpone voting on polling site changes until the potential for adverse impacts could be analyzed further, and additional health information and public input obtained.  The League noted that recent COVID-19 outbreaks in Massachusetts have been linked to large gatherings. The League’s statement is here.

Amherst currently has 17.092 registered voters, Martin said. 

The voter registration deadline for all elections in 2020 will be 10 days before any election.

A recording of the meeting can be found here. The discussion on consolidation of polling places begins at 1 hour 39 minutes.

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10 thoughts on “Town Council Votes To Replace Eight Polling Sites With One

  1. This is such a helpful article, Marla. I listened to the whole discussion but had a hard time following some of the back and forth and this article clarifies some things. What a shame there was so little outreach ahead of time — not one single public forum. The proposal came so late and had so many strange assumptions there was no chance to address, for example, understanding the basis of the Clerk’s assertion that a more crowded polling place is safer than several smaller places in terms of Covid and that contact tracing, if needed, would be easier with a larger polling place. Mysteries!!

  2. This seems crazy to me.

    To state the obvious: During this contagious pandemic why would you cram 15,000 Amherst voters into one building? Is this the best the Town Council can do?

    What gives?

  3. I appreciate those Councilors who voted – twice – against closing multiple polling stations and consolidating to just the High School in this year of a pandemic. They listened to the community, followed CDC advice, and they proposed an alternative that would keep as many existing sites as possible (potentially closing only 1 at Bangs Center, North Fire Station, and Crocker Farm), limiting the disenfranchisement of voters and suppressing the vote.

    I was very disheartened by the motion to reconsider by Mandi Jo Hanneke, based on a weak interpretation of “20 days” before an election as 20 business days rather than 20 calendar days. She was gung ho on consolidation and couldn’t let the No vote stand.

    I was even more disheartened by Lynn Griesemer flipping her vote, although not surprised since this is not the first time she was the deciding vote that went to the PAC-supported side. I was more surprised that she voted No at first and had cheered her on from my armchair. That didn’t last.

  4. This was a lazy, shoddy and embarrassing performance by the Council. The sad thing is, that with a bit of effort, this polarizing result could have been avoided. The Councilors could have done their homework before the vote. They could have done simulations of crowding at the single site and estimates of waiting times. They could have made concrete plans for providing for those who would have to wait (plans beyond the possible waiting tent that was mentioned by the Town Manager). They could have made specific arrangements for moving bus stops to ensure that folks could be transported directly to the doors of the high school. They could have made concrete plans for a safe and comprehensive shuttle service that would serve the entire town. They could have done outreach to constituencies that would have been most adversely impacted by the change. They could have researched the public health dangers of crowding into the HS and consulted with the MA DPH, who apparently have raised their own concerns about consolidation of polling places. They could have gone the extra mile in promoting vote by mail. Etc. This is how you build a consensus – by doing the groundwork and the homework –attending to details, and making sure that you bring lots of people on board, and that you look out for folks who might be harmed by your decision. Who knows (they certainly don’t) – maybe it’s even possible to pull this consolidation off safely and equitably.

    But our Councilors apparently don’t feel the need to do any of this work and so their work on consolidation was slipshod and full of hubris and contempt for the public.

    It is becoming common for the Council to make ill advised decisions and then plead that their hands were tied and they had no choice (see for example their recent decision on the police budget). Those who voted in the majority made this claim on Monday night. They decide, but then essentially claim that they are not responsible for the consequences. When the high school is overcrowded on November 3, prompting concerns about its role in the inevitable rise in COVID -19 numbers in Amherst, when folks leave without voting because of the long lines, when students fail to turn out to vote, when the final numbers reveal that the vote was indeed depressed in this most important of national elections, those seven Councilors who forced this decision upon the town will own the outcome.

  5. Hanneke’s move to reconsider the Council’s vote that defeated the consolidation apparently sought to take advantage of Section 7.5b of the Amherst Town Council Rules of Procedure, adopted in May 2019 and last revised June 2020 (https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/48385/Rules-of-Procedure-adopted-2019-05-20—revised-2020-06-01). This rule states that “Any Councilor voting with the non-prevailing side of any measure may move for reconsideration, when such motion is accompanied by the submission of new or additional information. The motion shall be in order at the next regular meeting following the vote on the measure.”
    It is certainly questionable whether the information about the timing of state deadlines to change polling stations is, in fact, new/additional (or accurate) or whether the Councilors were simply not well-prepared about the facts relevant to what they were about to vote on. In any case, the rule clearly states that the motion could not take place minutes after the first vote during the same meeting but must wait until the next meeting of the Council. Not sure how the second vote that reversed the first was even allowable.

  6. I am startled that no one, especially the Town Clerk, knew whether “20 days” was 20 calendar days or 20 business days. This issue comes up frequently in election law–and really any state, federal or local law with deadlines.

    If the motion to reconsider can only be made “…. in order at the next regular meeting following the vote on the measure,” this second vote clearly violated the Town Council’s own rule. Is the second vote invalid?

  7. One thing I noted late at last night’s meeting was that the Council President and others on the Yes side said, before the motion to repeat/ redo the vote, if it determined that 20 days was actually 20 calendar days (and this there actually was no new information) that they could reconvene September 10th. I hope the Council will get legal clarification today. If the 20 days are actually calendar days, they should meet again and repeat the vote again, as promised and consider Cathy Schoen’s motion. The outcome was disappointing. However, the process, a vote reversal, based off a lack of factual information, was worse.

  8. Someone else shared this resource developed by MIT and Caltech and I am passing the info along here. Through their Voter Technology Project (established after the 2000 Elections), they have created simulation models to estimate how long voter wait-times at in-person voting sites, based on the voting site hours, number of voters, number of check-in stations, number of voting stations, average time to check-in, average time to vote, and other factors. You can run the model with different assumptions including different peaks throughout the day (an early morning peak, a post work peak, steady flow of voters throughout the day).
    Here’s the web site: http://web.mit.edu/vtp/ and
    here is the direct link to the simulation for voting lines times: http://web.mit.edu/vtp/calc3.htm
    I tried different wait times assuming that there are the 10 precincts in the ARHS gyms, and that each precinct has one check-in station, and 4 voting booths. I assumed that it takes on average 2 minutes to check in and 5 minutes to vote. With that scenario and assuming a post-work peak, the evening voter wait times start to grow to 45-60 minutes or more with over 3,400-3,500 votes. if there is a steady number of voters throughout the day, then the wait times steadily grow throughout the day. if there are more check-in stations they grow less and not until there are more voters. It’s interesting to try different scenarios.

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