Editorial: No To A Single Polling Site. Our Town Council Must Do Better.

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Editor’s note:  This editorial was signed by the following members of the Amherst Indy’s editorial collective: Kitty Axelson-Berry, Stephen Braun, Art Keene, Marla Goldberg-Jamate, Jennifer Page, and Laura Quilter.

The Indy has reported on a markedly bad plan promoted by the Town Manager, Town Clerk, and some on the Town Council, to consolidate all eight of Amherst’s long-established polling sites and  have everyone vote in the Amherst Regional High School gym, beginning with the September 1 primary. The promoters of the plan argued that our system of neighborhood polling places is “confusing” for people in Amherst, and the new system would be less  perplexing and more efficient. At this moment, such an argument defies common sense. The world is still in the thick of a pandemic and Massachusetts is experiencing an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Just yesterday (8/7), Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker reduced the size of allowed outdoor gatherings from 100 to 50 people. The state is also postponing Step 2 of its 3-phase re-opening plan indefinitely.

Amherst now has more than 17,000 registered voters, and over 15,000 voted in the 2016 Presidential election. With the contested Senate primary in September, and an extremely important presidential election in November,  introducing a new system whereby everyone votes in the high school’s main gym would not be safe, simple, or efficient.

It is hard to fathom how a single site for all Amherst voters was even contemplated, much less decided upon and aggressively promoted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised towns to “maintain or increase the total number of polling places available to the public on Election Day to improve the ability to social distance.”

Yet the Town Council voted last week to approve the measure by a slim 7-6 majority, after taking a re-vote that violates its own rules of procedure. We have many pressing questions for the single-site proponents on the Council:

  •  Have these Councilors not been reading  international, national and state news? 
  • Do they not know about  risk of aerosolized COVID-19 transmission, and the need for social distancing? 
  • Have they not heard about the long lines and voter disenfranchisement that  occurs when too many voters are assigned to a polling site (as happened notoriously in recent elections in Milwaukee and Louisville)? 
  • Why was there no public report from the Town’s Health Director?
  • Why was there no public report about the ventilation capacity or conditions in the high school gym?
  •  Where is the evidence that Town officials reached out to the state’s epidemiologists and public health officials, or even experts in our own community?
  • Why wasn’t the proposal made in time for the Council to consider it thoughtfully, and obtain critical information  which is missing? 

The Town’s report on consolidation had none of the thoughtful analysis which is supposed to go into polling-place changes under state law, including an assessment of potential negative impacts to  voter access based on race, age, disability, and other factors. With inadequate details and virtually no evidence, the report simply states, conclusorily, that there will be no ill effects.

Nationwide, states and municipalities have wrestled with issues related to in-person voting during the pandemic for months. Guidelines around social distancing and recommendations to decrease transmission of the virus were predictable, and appropriate modifications to current polling stations could have been anticipated and executed long before now. Why, then, was a proposal about something as fundamental to our democracy as voting rights offered with minimal public notification, no public hearing, no formal studies of potential “disparate impacts” as required, and rammed through under the (false) argument that there was no time for anything other than a rubber-stamped approval?”

We agree with the many people who managed to submit formal comments in time for Councilors to read them, and the six Town Councilors who rejected the consolidation plan. Instituting this plan during COVID-19 would be far more confusing, inefficient, and probably unhealthy than making minimal changes at the existing sites. Consolidation would disenfranchise voters who do not have their own cars, hourly workers with little time to vote, voters with  young children, voters with dependent family members, voters who are  disabled, seniors, and those who are otherwise medically high-risk, voters who can’t wait on line outdoors in November and voters who don’t  keep up with news  about changes to  traditional polling places.

The Council decision defied common sense and demonstrated a cavalier attitude toward voter access, the  fundamental right in a democracy, which is particularly important to members of marginalized communities. And the decision demonstrated callous disregard for public health at a time when the number of new COVID-19 are increasing..

An alternative, well-thought-out proposal from Councilor Cathy Schoen, (District 1)  to maintain the current system and add the high school to it, was largely ignored by the Council.  However, a new proposal, “Option 2” refines Schoen’s plan, shifting two of three precincts from the Bangs Community Center to the high school to reduce crowding at the Bangs. 

The Council has agreed to reconsider the issue at a special meeting this Monday night (August 10).  Councilors will also consider whether to retain the single polling site.

We urge the Council to adopt a new, sensible plan that will best comply with the CDC’s guidance on polling places during the pandemic.

We also urge the Town Council to attend to process. Not only did the Council wait until what some of them erroneously thought was the last minute to consider this proposal, but they were poorly prepared. First, they spent an inordinate amount of time on a rudimentary regulatory question, and arrived at an incorrect answer. Next, proponents of consolidation exerted pressure for a re-vote , buttressed by yet more incorrect information about the Council’s own rules of procedure.  By midnight, the single-site proponents  had gotten their way, and Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) flipped her vote, giving proponents their desired outcome. 

It was an embarrassing performance.  We urge the Council to do better. 

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