Updated: Lawsuit Over Wrongfully Disqualified Signatures Filed In Supreme Judicial Court

John Adams Court House. Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Complaint Seeks Judgment Ordering Town To Certify At Least 76 Signatures

Amherst voters who claim that the signatures they submitted to the Town on April 20 were wrongly disqualified by the Town’s Board of Registrars over trivial and unlawful issues such as absent middle initials, have filed suit in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County. 

A copy of the complaint can be downloaded using the link below.

Exhibits associated with the complaint can be downloaded using the links below.

The lawsuit, filed by 40 registered voters in the Town, seeks a judicial order that the Board of Registrars of the Town of Amherst must certify at least 76 signatures submitted by petitioners and conclude that the petition satisfies the 5% threshold for a Voter Veto petition contained in the Amherst Home Rule Charter.  

“We hoped for a speedy, local resolution to the wrongful disqualification of numerous signatures, over bizarre issues such as including or excluding a middle initial, failing to write ‘St.” after a street name, or including the word ‘Amherst’ in a street address,” said petitioner Marla Jamate.  “However, no local remedy was forthcoming, and the rights of voters to petition their government cannot simply be forgotten, ignored, or set aside.”

The petitioners seek a referendum on the Town Council’s April 5 decision to borrow $35 million to reconstruct the Jones Library. They submitted 1,088 signatures to the Town on April 20, according to the Town Clerk’s Office. The office announced the following day that the petition group was 22 certified signatures short of the number the Board of Registrars has ruled is needed to trigger a Voter Veto referendum under the Amherst Home Rule Charter.  The Board refused to certify 246 signatures. 

In analyzing the rejected signatures, the petitioners found that many were provided by long-term registered voters, including former Town employees and elected officials. The group appealed over 100 rejections to the Board of Registrars, and submitted 92 affidavits from residents who stated that they signed the petition in their normal manner, and would like their signatures to be counted. 

Massachusetts General Law requires that signatures on petitions be “substantially” rather than “exactly” as registered in order to be certified.  It provides further, “[i]f the registrars can reasonably determine from the form of the signature the identity of the duly registered voter, the name shall be deemed to have been signed substantially as registered.”

The new lawsuit states that the Board failed to certify some signatures where a petitioner included or excluded their middle initial, spelled out rather than abbreviated addresses of Lane or Street as “Ln” or “St.,” or spelled out rather than abbreviated the street name Crossbrook as  “Cross Brk.” 

The new lawsuit charges the Board of Registrars with violating state law and regulations in failing to certify signatures, and in failing to protect voters’ rights under the U.S. Constitution and Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. 

Boards of Registrars are responsible for certifying signatures on nomination papers and petitions, issuing party enrollment and voter registration certificates, and investigating objections and challenges to local nomination papers.   Registrars take an oath to perform their duties faithfully, and can face penalties under Massachusetts General Law for prevention of registration, fraud, and refusing to perform their duties. 

Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Town Council President Lynn Griesemer declined to comment on the pending suit.

No hearing dates are set yet in the case, Terry Y. Allen vs. Board of Registrars, which was filed on May 20 by Attorney Carol Gray of Amherst, and Attorney Thomas O. Bean, of Verrill Dana LLP in Boston. 

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20 thoughts on “Updated: Lawsuit Over Wrongfully Disqualified Signatures Filed In Supreme Judicial Court

  1. Well, this is an interesting turn of events…will be fascinating to see how this new lawsuit gets resolves. Sounds like the petitioners got their own big gun lawyer, very good for them!

    I’m a bit more hopefully that justice and democratic norms will PREVAIL in our town, but my cynical side warns that deeply entrenched interests and corrupted business-as-usual leaders may win out.

    “May you live in interesting times” — Joseph Chamberlain

  2. I certainly hope the court, if it doesn’t throw the case out completely, takes into account the highly unusual number of signatories who, after learning more about what they were asked to sign, requested that their signatures be removed from the petition. That is way more unusual than 20-25% of signatures being disqualified for technicalities.

    I just read a terrific pro-library project column from the Bulletin written by an Amherst parent…. Why don’t you peruse it too? Link below…

    https://www.gazettenet.com/Guest-columnist-Farah-Ameen-40550942

  3. Yes, I read that piece and disagree with it, especially the author’s central premise that Amherst petitioners compliant is just like a Trumpian Arizona-style recount. That is just false. The petitioners case is based on a large set of signatures rejected for obvious and trivial reasons. This comes directly from many verified and public Town Hall review docs and the clerks own recorded statements. I believe those are now exhibits in the new court case and even linked in article above. Long time residents, former town meeting members and people of color had their signatures rejected for -no- justifiable reason.

    Rectifying that issue is not first world “privilege,” but a right we all need and should have no matter how you divide the world into categorical degrees of numbering.

    The author also stated: “To treat a petition signatory as the equivalent of a voter is simply a false comparison.” ??? You made that -exact- same perplexing statement Mr. Blumenfeld, but I know of no one else on either side that is making such a claim.

    Yes, of course a petition is -not- an election, but both must be processed fairly and without the heavy thumb of official corruption.

    I and many others in town want a chance to vote on this important referendum. It’s about town spending PRIORITIES of limited taxpayer money to scale back the Jones demolition and expansion project to prevent further cuts in school district services, to fully fund the much needed Community Safety Working Group alternate policing program (yes, they made a great presentation at last 5/24 Monday’s town council meeting, it gets my vote, all should watch it!!!), fire coverage for South Amherst and provide a safe DPW building for starters…

  4. Mr. Smith:

    I do take issue with your claim that there is a “heavy thumb of official corruption,” weighing on the scales here. That seems disrespectful to our public servants, who, in Amherst, seem particularly well-intentioned, honest and hard working, and I hope you will withdraw that accusation.

    You have every right to be upset with the results of the petition drive, as Ms. Ameen and I have every right to be upset about how the petitioners conducted their drive and what they said to get people to sign. Again, I point out that 20% rejection seems pretty standard in drives like this, but the number of signatories in this drive who requested that their signatures be withdrawn seems more unusual to me and to many others.

    That latter point seems to illustrate the difference between a signature drive and election. An election is monitored by neutral poll workers and voters must sign in (happily without needing to provide ID). That seems to serve as verification of a voter’s eligibility along with their physical presence or their signature on their absentee ballot. That seems to me to be a higher and more even standard than randomly approaching strangers and getting them to sign a document with the evaluation of validity taking place days later out of sight of the petition advocate and the signatory. Dismissing signatures for “obvious and trivial reasons” as you say seems to be anything but that to me. I have not heard, and forgive me if this has been discussed, what the standards are for discarding signatures. It seems to me that the bar should actually be pretty high for the Board of Registrars and that any discrepancy should be legitimate grounds for discarding. I would be happy if someone who is a constitutional law scholar would weigh in on this…

  5. A short note about the court case, Plaintiffs v. Board of Registrars of the Town of Amherst MA
    Some people, and media, ask why we are going to court with a suit against Amherst. There is no other recourse. In public meetings of the board of registrars, the town clerk and the town’s attorney said over and over that taking our complaint to court is the only means to challenge the clerk’s disqualification of the Voter Veto Petition. At these meetings, petitioners objected to the determination by the clerk’s office of a huge number of non-certified signatures and addresses, along with the flimsy reasons for non-certification, utterly inconsistent with state law and guidelines. We tried repeatedly and in a very timely way to obtain redress through the clerk and the board of registrars, but the clerk and the town’s attorney were unmoved and said adamantly over and over that the court was the one and only avenue for us. So, in fact, they instructed us to go to court. When the clerk said, several times, “mistakes are made”, that admits that the certification process was flawed, but no town agency made any remedy to the “mistakes”. Go to court, they said. So here we are. The responsibility is on the town, not on the petitioners.

  6. Mr. Blumenfeld:

    You write: “I would be happy if someone who is a constitutional law scholar would weigh in on this…”

    I am a constitutional scholar and would be happy to weigh in. The right of voters to have their signatures validated on petitions for local ballot measures, when their signatures and addresses are “substantially as registered” (McCarthy v. Secretary of the Commonwealth, 371 Mass. 667 (1977)), is as fundamental as their right to vote in an election. The complaint in Terry V. Allen et al v. Board of Registrars of the Town of Amherst presents overwhelming evidence that, for at least 76 voters in Amherst, this right was violated. If you have not yet carefully read the complaint (linked above in this article), then I urge you to do so.

    I hope the Board of Registrars will do so as well and will recognize that, rather than wasting tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in legal fees to fight this case in court, it ought to enter immediately into a consent decree with the plaintiffs — to be approved by the court — which admits that the Board wrongly invalidated these signatures and that the petitioners, therefore, met the 5% threshold for their Voter Veto petition and which establishes the date for the election on this Voter Veto petition.

  7. Mr. Blumenfeld writes: “I point out that 20% rejection seems pretty standard in drives like this, but the number of signatories in this drive who requested that their signatures be withdrawn seems more unusual to me and to many others.”

    I am not a plaintiff in Allen v. Board of Registrars of Amherst, the voter rights case now before the Supreme Judicial Court of Suffolk County. I did, however, sign the Voter Veto Petition, and obtained the signatures for it of four other registered Amherst voters. I know them all well. I knew before asking that they were all registered voters. Others circulating the Petition reportedly did the same, even obtaining a copy of the Town’s voter rolls for the purpose.

    The disqualification of 20% of the signature on a petition might happen with some frequency. Here, however, the Registrars disqualified fewer than 20% of the signatures on the Voter Veto Petition. Mr. Blumenfeld seems to imply that the Plaintiffs in the Supreme Judicial Court case therefore have no beef. But I have looked at certain of the evidence, as John Bonifaz (above) invites him to do. The plaintiffs do indeed have a beef. So does every Amherst voter whose signature on the Petition was wrongly disqualified.

    Disqualification of voters’ signatures is no matter of statistics. Massachusetts law requires the Registrars to determine, signature by signature, whether to certify or disqualify each. Please see this excerpt from Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 53, Section 7:

    “If the registrars can reasonably determine from the form of the signature the identity of the duly registered voter, the name shall be deemed to have been signed substantially as registered. The provisions of this section shall apply in all cases where any … home rule charter requires the certification of the signature of a voter by boards of registrars of voters.”

    As to what Mr. Blumenfeld says about signature-gathering for this Petition, obviously I can speak only for what I myself told potential signatories. However, the complete text of the Petition appears at the top of the front page of each signature sheet. Before signing, presumably, those who chose to sign had read for themselves what it said.

  8. The requirements for disqualifying signatures on petitions in the State of Massachusetts can be understood without having expertise in constitutional law. The standards for qualification and disqualification of signatories on petitions are found at https://www.mass.gov/doc/950-cmr-55-certification-of-nomination-papers-and-petitions/download . There is nothing in this document that remotely justifies rejecting signatures for some of the reasons given by the town clerk staff, such as using standard abbreviations instead of writing out the whole word. Here is the relevant text:

    “…(3) In general, a name is “signed substantially as registered” if it can reasonably be determined to be that of a registered voter. For example, registrars shall certify names in which:
    (a) A middle initial is inserted or omitted.
    (b) A common or known nickname is used.
    (c) Two initials are used with a surname.
    (d) One initial is used with a surname, if no other registered voter with that initial lives at the indicated address.
    (e) “Jr.” or “Sr.” is inserted or omitted.
    (f) Ditto marks are used to indicate a correct address.
    (g) The name is printed.

    (4) For example, a name is not “signed substantially as registered”, and registrars shall not certify it, if:
    (a) The first name is different from the first name as registered, and no common or known nickname is used.
    (b) The address is different, even if only the house number is different, or if a post office box number rather than a street address appears.
    (c) The name is not that of a registered voter at the indicated address.”

    Different first name! Wrong street number! Right, good reasons for disqualification. Nothing about “Ln.” vs “Lane.”

    I couldn’t find anything else at mass.gov about requirements for certifying petition signatures, but any given web posting at mass.gov might be out of date. I emailed the clerk’s office on May 20 to ask whether this particular online material is valid, or, if not, what standards they do use and why. No response or acknowledgement so far.

  9. Thank you Mr. Bonifaz, Ms. McKee and Mr George for your comments.

    I will point out that you pointedly did not address the issue of voters requesting their removal from the petition.

    I can only conclude that you find this as troubling as do I, since it weakens the case for the credibility of the petitioners.

  10. What I find troubling is the concerted disinformation campaign conducted by members of Amherst Forward to subvert a legitimate effort by residents of Amherst to contest a decision made by Town Council (the only such means provided to voters in the Town Charter – see section 8.4). In the case of the voter veto petition, petitioners sought a referendum so that voters would have a say on the borrowing for the Jones library expansion. Katherine Appy, Co-chair of Amherst Forward sent an email to a list for former members of Town Meeting telling them that if the petition drive succeeds it will cost the town at least $1.6M and she provided them with instructions and a form to use to remove their signatures from the petition. Those instructions were reproduced on the FB pages of some AF supporters as well as the FB page of District 4 Councilor Steve Schreiber. And then, for all of that effort, only 12 people requested to have their signatures removed and only 2 succeeded. But all of this is a distraction from the central issue of the court filing which is that one in five signers of the petition had their signatures rejected by the Assistant Town Clerk for trivial reasons that violate the provisions for signature certification under Mass General Law. Over 100 Amherst voters have filed affidavits protesting their unjustified disqualification for such trivial reasons as abbreviating the words Street or Lane or for including a zip code with their address. They were told by the Board of Registrars that they may not appeal the decision of the Assistant Town Clerk. The matter is now before the Supreme Judicial Court to determine whether this was, as the suit claims, a flagrant violation of voting rights.

  11. It puzzles me why the PAC people are so frightened of bringing the borrowing for the Jones project to a town-wide vote. Since proponents vehemently contend that it enjoys overwhelming support from Amherst residents, you’d think they would welcome the chance to prove it.

  12. Re: Ms Plaut’s statement – proponents have “proven it” with two library trustee votes and a 10-2-1 majority of the Town Council. And the support of the Town CPAC. And the support of the MBLC. And the support of many individual donors. And the support of our State Rep and State Senator.

    What proponents are tired of is the game of whack-a-mole that anti-library folks keep playing. This game, which has now manifested itself in the current petition drive lawsuit, could delay the library project, which, would be unfortunate for all.

    As to Mr. Keene’s claim that a disinformation campaign is being organized by Amherst Forward, well I suppose two emails that clarified misinformation supplied by petitioners could be called a campaign, but that seems like a pretty low bar.

    I would suggest that a more productive use of time right now would be to put this debate aside and to support the Jones Annual Fund Drive…

  13. There is much to recommend our new system of town government over the previous one, but I do miss a few features of Town Meeting: no impugning anyone’s motives (those who question the current library proposal are “anti-library”) and no calling the question at the end of a speech.

  14. Perhaps best way to address the ideas raised in a recent comment is to give three short Lectures on Alternative Math:

    Alternative Math (Part 1):
    ====================

    There are at least 900 registered voters in Amherst who signed a petition asking the Amherst Council to reconsider its recent vote in order to preserve/renovate the Jones.

    There are at most 6 (elected) trustees of the Jones Library, and 9 members of the MBLC (all appointed or re-appointed by the current governor of Massachusetts), along with 10 Amherst councilors (elected) and 9 members (appointed by the council) of CPAC, and of course our Senator and Rep in Boston: Jo Comerford and Mindy Domb. This adds up to at most 36 votes in favor of demolishing/expanding the Jones.

    So the “score” appears to be

    Preserve/renovate 922 [at least]

    Demolish/expand 36 [at most]

    Alternative Math (Part 2):
    ====================

    Having just been informed that the Jones trustees voted not once, but twice, perhaps their votes should now count double (notwithstanding Section 2 of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution), giving the Demolish/expand side 6 “extra points” for a total of 40 [at most] .

    Alternative Math (Part 3):
    ====================

    Finally, use the Alternative Fact* that

    40 is larger 922

    to draw your conclusions….

    ====================

    *A proof of this Alternative Fact may someday be found, but unfortunately the margins of the Indy Comments are inadequate to contain one, so more research into Alternative Math must be done, requiring additional funding, and considerable borrowing as well. However, this is surely a very worthwhile investment, since it is well known to experts in Alternative Math that this Alternative Fact can be used to give an Alternative Proof of anything!

  15. What I find troubling is that Mr Blumenfeld keeps going back this “issue” as he wants to make it. I think that is called diversion. Regardless, I don’t see the “equal parts” here. The Town Clerk at an open meeting on May 10th stated that there had been 25 people who requested to have their signatures removed from the petition. As I understand it, the 2 allowed to retract their signature filed their request before the deadline to do so. The others did not. On the other hand, the Town received over 100 sworn affidavits from people attesting that their signatures had been wrongly rejected, having discovered this because of the due diligence of the petitioners. So, what is Mr Blumenfeld’s point? That some people changed their mind after signing the petition? He has reported that signature gatherers used “scare” tactics to pressure and mislead voters into signing the petition. He knows this “for certain”, yet he has not provided any specifics or, dare I say…proof. Personally, if a signature gatherer had behaved that way with me, I would not have signed anything and instead would have reported their behavior to the Town Manager or other official. When Mr Blumenfeld asserts that these many adults were confused or so easily mislead, he does them a disservice. The number of those that requested to withdraw their signature may indeed be unusual. So, perhaps, might be the number of them that were contacted after signing by an opponent of the petition. So, hopefully, will be the other abnormalities discovered through the scrutinizing this entire situation.

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