Amherst Petitioners Appeal To Board Of Registrars Over Wrongfully Rejected Signatures


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A group of petitioners who seek a town-wide referendum on the $35.8 million approved.borrowing for the Jones Library expansion project have filed an appeal with the Board of Registrars, asking it to review and certify more than 100 petition signatures that were disqualified by the Town Clerk’s office last week. 

“We have studied the petition records and found many cases in which registered voters were inappropriately disqualified,” stated Carol Gray, lead organizer of the petition drive. “We are very concerned that voters’ fundamental rights to petition their government under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and under Article 19 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights are being violated here. More than one in five of the 1,088 signatures we submitted were disqualified.”

The Town Clerk’s Office said on Wednesday April 21 that of the signatures that petitioners submitted on April 20, only 842 could be certified. The Town has maintained that 864 signatures are needed for a “Voter Veto” petition to pass. 

Those signatures disqualified by the Town Clerk’s Office included some elderly people with light signatures, and residents with unusual or foreign-looking names which might be more challenging to discern based on signatures alone. However, in such cases, spellings could easily have been clarified and signatures certified, by checking the address provided by the petition signer against the Town’s voter registration forms.

“Having a signature that might be difficult to read does not mean that a person loses their Constitutional rights to petition their government under the First Amendment and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights,” Gray said.  

Numerous registered voters were disqualified based on address, but the petitioners believe that a thorough review process, including consultation of the registered voter database and voter registration forms, will confirm that these individuals were disqualified in error.  Several of those disqualified include registered voters who have been living at their same address for decades.

The Town’s calculation of 864 necessary signatures is based on 5% registered voters counted when the last local election was held in 2019, rather than the number recorded for the November 2020 election. Using the most recent (2020) data, the 842 signatures certified by the Town Clerk’s Office would exceed the 5% threshold needed to trigger a reconsideration of the April 5 vote by the Town Council, and placement of the issue on the ballot for voters to decide. 

The certification of the signatures was conducted by the Town Clerk’s Office after the Amherst Board of Registrars, on April 21, delegated the task of checking each signature to the Town Clerk’s Office staff. The petitioners have requested that the Board of Registrars itself investigate each signature raised in the petitioners’ appeal.  In their appeal to the Board of Registrars, the petitioners stated that they believe the certification process conducted by Town Clerk’s office  was “flawed in fundamental ways.” 

“The verification of 1,088 signatures is a huge job if a complete and diligent effort to evaluate and potentially verify each signature is made,” said petitioner Rita Burke. “Yet, this process was completed less than 24 hours after all petitions were filed.”

Meanwhile, the Amherst Home Rule Charter allows the Board of Registrars a period of 10 days from the filing of a petition to “ascertain the number of voters that signed the petition.” Based on the Charter’s timeline, the Board of Registrars would have until April 30 to make a determination as to the number of certified signatures. 

“We are optimistic that the Board of Registrars will conduct a careful and detailed review of all the disqualified signatures, including comparing signatures and addresses submitted to entries in the voter registration database and voter registration forms.” said petitioner Marla Jamate.

Petitioners requested access to the voter registration forms of petition signers who were disqualified, but were told by the Town Clerk’s Office that, absent a court order, access to these records would only be allowed in accordance with an Open Records Request which the Town has up to 10 days to process. 

Citing an undue hardship imposed on petitioners by the Town’s denial of COVID-19 accommodations, the petitioners including former Jones Library trustees Molly Turner, Pat Holland, Carol Gray and others filed an Emergency Motion for a Preliminary Injunction in Hampshire County Superior Court on April 16. The group seeks the right to use the signature-gathering measures during COVID that were granted  by the Supreme Judicial Court last year in a case called Goldstein v. Secretary of State (484 Mass 516). In that case, the SJC gave election-candidate plaintiffs the right to collect signatures electronically, plus an extension of filing deadlines. The SJC order also reduced the number of petition signatures required by 50%. The Amherst petitioners’ Emergency Motion seeks an extension of their petitioning deadline by one week, the use of electronic signatures, and reduction of the signatures required.

Opposition To the Voter Veto
Supporters of the Jones expansion have objected vociferously to the voter veto petition, declaring it wasteful of town resources, anti-democratic, reactionary, and dishonest (see here and here for examples of their complaints and here for arguments in support of borrowing for the Jones project).

According to Jamate, the case underscores a broader need to protect the ability of citizens to petition their government effectively during COVID-19.

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15 thoughts on “Amherst Petitioners Appeal To Board Of Registrars Over Wrongfully Rejected Signatures

  1. I can have coherent conversations with people who weren’t born yet when this library mess started. We are enduring several national and global crises at once (climate change, police militarization, the rise of the far right), and *this* is what you are still spending your time and energy on? Find a better cause already!

  2. Mr. Garrison, isn’t it fundamental to addressing all the crises you mention that votes — and voters’ signatures — be counted accurately, each and every time? Here, evidently, the Town Clerk’s Office even disqualified the signature of the husband of one of the Registrars.

    Amherst voters have never had the chance to vote on the multi-million-dollar Library demolition/expansion project. Town Council reserved that decision to itself. If the Voter Veto Petition succeeds, however, and if Town Council votes the same way yet again, we Amherst voters will get that chance. It seems pretty basic to me.

  3. Ms. McKee is once again incorrect. Amherst voters overwhelmingly elected a slate of library Trustees (twice in fact) who ran explicitly on a platform of renovating and expanding the Jones under this plan. The vast majority of the Town clearly supports the project and are certainly against efforts by Ms. McKee, Ms. Gray, Mr. O’Connor etc., who force delay, and add expense.

    Per Mr. Garrison’s suggestion, is it not time to move on?

  4. Investigation of the Town Clerk’s office is definitely needed. Something nutty and corrupt going on here — my neighbor was told that he had his signature voided because they couldn’t figure out the middle initial.

  5. Might I also add that Amherst voters elected a slate of Town Council members who expressed, through their votes on this issue, overwhelmingly strong majority support for the library project (10-2-1). Their appointments were the result of an electoral process much more vigorous, transparent, and democratic than the ones that led to town meeting appointments, where there were almost always more slots available than there were candidates who were running. I am speaking from experience here, as someone who basically had the privilege of electing myself for multiple terms of office with nothing more than my own vote. Town Council candidates, along with Library Trustees, ran on a platform that voters could assess and vote upon. Which we did. Saying that we didn’t have an opportunity to weigh in is just plain wrong. Let it go, and let’s move on in support of a fabulous community opportunity.

  6. No, Matt, Amherst voters did NOT overwhelmingly elect a slate of Library Trustees. All six incumbent Trustees ran uncontested in the November, 2019 election and, of a possible 14,226 votes, 5,533 (almost 40%) were left blank or went to someone not on the ballot. In fact, the highest vote getter received a mere 1,491 votes.

    Where do you get the idea that “the VAST MAJORITY of the Town clearly supports the project”? Sounds like hype to me. Are you still on the Trustees’ payroll? The fact that they hired a PR firm to sell the demolition/expansion project to town residents has always troubled me. I ponder creating a GoFundMe account on behalf of our firefighters so that they can hire a similar firm and finally get the new headquarters they deserve.

  7. The Charter intentionally included a provision for residents to gather signatures if they disagreed with a vote by the Town Council. A group of residents organized and did just that, when they disagreed with the vote to authorize borrowing $36.3 million for the library project. And against all odds — in a pandemic that has shut down all large gatherings where signatures would typically be gathered, and made door-to-door canvassing far less feasible — they gathered the required number of signatures plus a cushion of more than 200. That alone indicates that there is significant opposition to the project.

    It seems highly unlikely that so many signatures would be legitimately disqualified, and in fact many of those residents whose signatures were disqualified have signed affidavits confirming they were legitimate. So the organizers did succeed in getting sufficient signatures to put the library project borrowing on the ballot to let the residents decide whether they want this project or not. That seems pretty democratic to me.

    Whether you wanted to sign the petition or not (I did not), how can you support withholding that right from residents?

    As Jennifer Taub put it on a discussion about the moratorium petition: “Citizens have the right to use every recourse that is allowed without it being dismissed as sour grapes. How is this any different than when Amherst Forward lost its first vote on the schools and demanded a re-vote”? That question went to the voters to make the final decision. If you supported that petition in early 2017, it seems hypocritical to oppose this one.

  8. Who is disputing their right to gather signatures and to petition? No one…

    Who thinks that the petitioners are wrong to pursue this? A large majority…

    Who thinks that the petitioners did not meet the requisite threshold of valid signatures? The Town and now a judge….

    Who thinks the petitioners are wasting valuable time and tax payer money? I sure do…

  9. Thanks, Toni! I’d add that the only reason the Jones Library’s current demolition/expansion plan includes any sustainability features at all is due to those of us who studied the proposed project in detail and then raised this issue publicly.

    Sustainability is vital. Yet the Trustees’ Grant Application states unequivocally that their project did not qualify for even the lowest level of LEED certification. See page 8:

    By foregoing LEED certification at the start, the Trustees failed to qualify for up to $450,000 in MBLC Green Library incentive funding. The sustainability features that they plan to add now will add more than $650,000 to the total capital cost. Who exactly, Mr. Blumenfeld, is driving up those costs?

  10. Mr Blumenfeld,

    First, there are at least, even according to the Town, 842 registered voters in Amherst who think the petitioners are right in taking this action. Since you assert that a “large majority” do not, I would be interested to view their signatures.

    Second, no judge has given an opinion as to the petitioners meeting the requisite threshold of valid signatures.

    Are your statements alternative facts or do you just pitch what you hope will work?

    By the way….SAVING tax payer dollars, including ours, is why we signed the petition.

  11. If this is really about the economics of all of this, why isn’t anyone questioning the need for 3 libraries? Couldn’t the gift to the North Amherst library have been better used in solidifying the library structure in town around a single facility? What good is a 50 seat meeting room in North Amherst, when the Bang’s center goes empty?

    Could someone please point me to similarly sized communities in the local area with the same number of library buildings?

  12. To Marcus Smith – I think my basic answer to your question is that it isn’t really about the economics of all this. At one time I would have answered that the North Amherst Library, along with Mark’s Meadow School, North Church, and Watroba’s Market were the institutions holding a fragile North Amherst community together. Now the North Amherst village center is less fragile but it still needs institutions to give it a sense of community. The library is the only one left, although I am sure others will develop as the years go on.

    Amherst is a long, narrow town and the Bangs Center a cold and complicated building. I think much could be done to make the Bangs Center more welcoming but the town is committed to developing its village centers (correctly, in my opinion) and making the Bangs Center more of an island amidst residents who are unlikely to use it. The North Amherst Library will be widely used and the anonymous gift more widely appreciated.

    But it has always been widely used in spite of the hazards of reaching it. It is an architectural gem (and how many buildings in town answer to that description?) and once the proposed roadworks are accomplished it will be less of an island and more intrinsically and safely linked to the North Amherst community it serves.

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