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.