Report On The Meeting Of The Districting Advisory Board, September 21, 2021
Full members: Irene Dujovne (chair), , Marilyn Blaustein, Mahek Ghelani, Joseph Gordon, Craig Meadows, Peggy Shannon (co-chair),, Tracy Zafian
Non-voting members: Susan Audette (Town Clerk), Demetria Shabazz (Board of Registrars), Mike Warner Town of Amherst IT Department) .
If you’re an Amherst voter, who will you be able to vote into office in local elections, starting next year? That depends on your district. Where will you vote? That depends on your precinct.
For the next ten years, which is to say the next U.S. Census, local elections will be determined by redistricting taking place now. The Districting Advisory Board (DAB) has been meeting every week since early August to define new district and precinct boundaries, and in a refreshing change of pace, this board wants public input and says it takes it seriously. “We need input — and we have time for it,” said co-chair Peggy Shannon. Not that there’s a lot of time.
The number of districts and precincts won’t change. There will still be five districts, with two precincts in each. Although the rules aren’t complicated, it’s not proving easy to meet them all with our unusual demographics. Each district must be compact and contiguous, without protruding pieces of territory, and have clear, well-defined boundaries that coincide with boundaries used for the federal census “blocks,” including streets, streams, railroad tracks. The population of each district must be within 5% of most of the other districts in town. And each district will, to the extent possible, keep neighborhoods or other centers of common interest together.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the board is how to respect places that are high density but low voter turn-out, often areas with multi-story housing for undergraduate students. Another is how to respect areas with significant numbers of low-income residents, e.g. Colonial Village, Village Park, and the apartment houses off East Hadley Road.
Demetria Shabazz, a non-voting member, asked about students’ comments on redistricting here. Have other board members had conversations with students?
“They aren’t concerned with this,” attested District 1 board member Mahek Ghelani, herself an undergraduate at UMass-Amherst, class of 2023. “They’ll only be living in one place here for one or two years.” Her observations were seconded by board member Joseph Gordon of District 3, also a UMass-Amherst undergraduate. “The fact that students are moving around so much makes it very difficult. A lot of students vote at home, not in Amherst, because they know they’re just going to be moving out in a short time. [The student] population is large, but turnout will continue to be pretty low.”
One version of redistricting Amherst could mean that in an area dense with student dorms and multi-story student-style apartments (high population and traditionally low voter concern about local issues), a small number of voters could heavily influence local elections. Conversely, as pointed out by resident Meg Gage (District 1) at a previous meeting, some areas of high-voter turnout would be disenfranchised if they are combined. There has been concern about redistricting in Precincts 2, 6, 7, and 8 (current Districts 2 and 5), for example.
There are other sticky questions as well. DAB member Marilyn Blaustein (District 2) noted that in one version of redistricting, Echo Hill would no longer be considered part of the East Village area (near Fort River Elementary School and Colonial Village) but Chestnut Street and Triangle Street (in downtown Amherst) would no longer be in any downtown district; instead it would be part of the East Village area more than a mile away. In another version, the district that would include Echo Hill would stretch from the town’s northernmost border including Cushman to its southernmost border on Bay Road.
Will public input actually be considered, though? Does the public stand a chance of having an effect on the final redistricting plan that will be submitted to the Town Council in mid-October? “Yes!” said several members. “We put the draft maps out there in order to generate feedback from the community—we’re very open to making changes,” said co-chair Peggy Shannon. “If there are particular areas that [people] think are mismatched or if there’s a philosophy you’d like to share, we’d really like to hear it.”
Craig Meadows, a board member from District 4, added that they had received “an excellent comment in writing from Jennifer Taub [District 3]” earlier that day and will be discussing it. “Map improvements have been made due to public comments,” added board member Tracy Zafian, who has been reaching out to her District 3 town councilors as well as neighbors and the general public.
Meanwhile, both Blaustein and Shannon raised the critical point that the public must have maps showing not only proposed precincts (voting places) but proposed districts (representation in local government). “That’s what people will really be affected by,” Blaustein reminded the other board members.
But the board — and even more so the public — will have to act quickly. There are at most two weeks for Amherst residents to analyze the most current versions of redistricting and make their observations and suggestions to the redistricting board, whose deadline to submit one proposal to the Town Council by mid-October. Then the council has only a couple of weeks to review and vote on it because it is due to the state’s Local Election District Review Committee (LEDRC) by the end of October. If the LEDRC rejects it, the town only has seven days to make changes and resubmit it.
Unfortunately, the DAB has not figured out a clear process, in its brief tenure so far, to publicize and solicit, receive and review, and discuss input in a timely manner. But its members are anxious to do so immediately, and interested readers should send their written comments to the office of the town clerk or participate in the next Zoom meeting of the board, which takes place September 28. In addition, they can view enlarged print-outs of the draft redistricting maps on display in Town Hall, and write their comments on forms or blank paper that will be placed nearby.
For the September 28 meeting packet look here.
For 4 versions of two basic redistricting proposals:
Send written comments to Town Clerk Susan Audette and put DAB in the subject line firstname.lastname@example.org