Letter: Integrity of Board of Registrars Is On The Line With Petitioners Complaint

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The following letter was sent to the Amherst Board of Registrars, Town Manager, and Town Council on May 31, 2021.

The constitutional 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 constitutional right to vote in an election. In the recently-filed case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Terry Y. Allen et al v. Board of Registrars of the Town of Amherst, the plaintiffs have presented overwhelming evidence that, for at least 76 voters in Amherst, this right was violated. (A copy of the complaint can be found here. Copies of the accompanying exhibits can be found here.)

I write to urge the Board of Registrars to enter immediately into a consent decree with the plaintiffs — to be approved by the court — in which the Board 1) agrees to certify these wrongly invalidated signatures; 2) admits, therefore, that the Voter Veto petition met the 5% threshold; and 3) establishes the date for the election on the issue specified in the Voter Veto petition.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs show that the Board wrongly disqualified signatures where the signatories:

• _“(i) did not sign a middle name or initial on the Petition even though the middle name or initial was listed on the Town’s voter rolls or (ii) did sign a middle name or initial on the Petition when the middle name or initial was not listed on the voter rolls…”;

• _“did not abbreviate [‘Lane’ or ‘Street’] on the Petition” while “the address on the Voter Rolls abbreviated words such as ‘Lane’ or ‘Street’”;

• _“who live on an avenue named ‘Crossbrook’ spelled out the complete name of their street while the voter rolls erroneously list the street name as ‘Cross Brk’”;

• _“who did not include the abbreviations or words ‘Court,’ ‘St.’, or ‘Rdg.’ after their street address when the voter rolls included these words, even though there are no other streets in Town with the same name as the streets where the signatories reside”; and

• _“included in their address on the Petition the name of the town in which they resided, Amherst, the state, Massachusetts, and/or zip code, even though the name of the town, state, and/or the zip code was not listed on the residential address section of the voter rolls but was included in the mailing address section.”

At its May 10, 2021 meeting, the Board of Registrars discussed the Open Meeting Law Complaint filed on May 4, 2021 by Amherst attorney Carol Gray alleging serious Open Meeting Law violations in connection with a meeting held by the Board of Registrars on April 21, 2021. During that discussion, Board Member Jamie Wagner asked whether there was any other way to review the petition signatures which Assistant Town Clerk Amber Martin had disqualified during the certification process other than for the Board to declare its April 21, 2021 meeting as null and void in light of the allegations. The Town Attorney responded that the only avenue available to the petitioners to seek such a review would be for them to challenge in court the disqualification of the signatures in question.

The Town Attorney, however, did not include in that response the options available to the Board if such a lawsuit were filed. Now that voters whose petition signatures were disqualified have filed this litigation, the Board can opt to waste tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in legal fees fighting this case in court or can opt to settle the matter with the plaintiffs via a consent decree as described above. To make this decision in a responsible manner in accordance with your duties as members of the Board of Registrars to protect the rights of all voters of Amherst, you should carefully read the plaintiffs’ complaint. Based on the strength of the complaint, the Board of Registrars could, with the assistance of Town Counsel, propose a consent decree to the plaintiffs to settle this case.

The integrity of the Amherst Board of Registrars is on the line in this case. With the initiation of this lawsuit, you now have the opportunity to resolve this matter and to vindicate the constitutional rights of Amherst voters whose signatures on this Voter Veto petition were wrongly disqualified. I urge you to do so.

John C. Bonifaz

John C. Bonifaz is a resident of Amherst and an attorney specializing in constitutional law.

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