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Tech helped propel Amherst pro-charter group’s victory

  • People cheer as results favoring the Amherst charter revision are received Tuesday, Macrh 27, 2018 at The Pub. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Andy Churchill, top, who is the chair of the Charter Commission, speaks Tuesday, March 27, 2018 at The Pub after the charter revision passed. Beside him is Johanna Neumann, the chair of Amherst for All. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Johanna Neumann, who is the chair of Amherst for All, hugs Andy Churchill, the chair of the Charter Commission, Tuesday, March 27, 2018 at The Pub after the charter revision passed. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • People cheer as the Amherst charter revision passes Tuesday, Macrh 27, 2018 at The Pub. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • People cheer as the Amherst charter revision passes Tuesday, Macrh 27, 2018 at The Pub. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • People cheer as the Amherst charter revision passes Tuesday, Macrh 27, 2018 at The Pub. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2018

AMHERST — With less than an hour to go before polls were to close Tuesday, Tom Davies, a canvasser for the pro-charter Amherst for All, was given directions, through a smartphone app, to the home of a likely supporter who hadn’t yet voted.

For Davies, this visit led to what he described as a remarkable experience, as he met a woman who was tired, but who also agreed to be driven to her polling place and, during the car ride, regaled him with stories about her participation in the early days of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

More importantly for those advocating for the charter, Davies’ experience demonstrates how technology can assist with an effective operation to turn out voters in real time, said Johanna Neumann, chairwoman of the campaign.

“Our strategy was a very basic strategy, and we layered in a robust volunteer ground game and 21st-century technology, and it worked,” Neumann said, noting that well over 100 volunteers were involved in the Amherst for All campaign.

For $660 a month, the campaign purchased a voter engagement tool known as the Voter Action Network, or VAN for short. This helped the campaign know who supported the charter, who opposed it and who was undecided, and then to target them effectively, Neumann said.

“The campaign we ran didn’t do anything radical,” Neumann said. “Our basic strategy was to identify the people with us and make sure they voted.”

During the course of the day, both Amherst for All and opponents of the charter had poll watchers to identify all voters casting ballots.

But unlike the conventional printouts of voter rolls used by the opponents, Charter Commission member Nick Grabbe was at the Bangs Community Center inputting those who voted using a tablet computer. This information then went to a central database.

From there, the information was sent to a mobile- friendly field app, the mini-VAN, which canvassers used and, with geocoding from Google maps, arrived at the homes of those who had not yet voted.

“Our goal was to turn out 80 percent of our identified voters, and we exceeded that goal around the 7 o’clock hour,” Neumann said.

Even in the closing 20 minutes, volunteer Clare Bertrand said she used her miniVan to get to a supporter at Village Park Apartments, and convinced him it was worth his time to vote.

Neumann said this was supplemented with a phone-based effort that put in live calls between noon and 8 p.m. Amherst for All also bought a software package that allowed it to leave a voicemail message the previous day. Long-time resident Rhoda Honigberg agreed to lend her voice to these calls, which organizers dubbed “Rhodacalls.”

Neumann herself recorded a final message at 5 p.m. on election day that went to supporters who still hadn’t voted.

Commission Chairman Andy Churchill said he feels the commission’s proposal was a sensible one that, combined with the professional manner in which Amherst for All worked its voters, led to a successful outcome.

“I think we had a good plan and a very good campaign,” Churchill said.

Churchill said the changes were more modest than previous proposals, which were defeated by 14 votes in 2003, and again by a larger margin two years later. While both had a professional manager, the latest didn’t add a mayor, and instead the focus was on whether or not to preserve Town Meeting.

“We focused on one part of government that seemed to be struggling,” Churchill said, noting that Amherst has outgrown Town Meeting and that many residents don’t know their own representatives.

He said having retired state Rep. Ellen Story and retired U.S. Rep. John Olver support the charter, along with 200 former Town Meeting members, also helped.

And while some charter opponents blame the failed twin school project for the outcome, Churchill said many of those involved in the campaign would have supported the charter no matter what.

“I don’t think it was just a matter of getting revenge, it was a symptom of not feeling represented,” Churchill said.

Neumann said the school project was just the latest vote that exposed deficiencies in town government, and she happily supports a government with a more robust, representative local democracy for Amherst that will have more thoughtful spending and planning decisions.

The Pub owner Jerry Jolly, who served on the Charter Commission formed in 2001, said both plans were good, but commissioners the last time didn’t have the energy to bring back immediately a proposal that lost so narrowly. That, he said, would have improved prospects of passage.

He said the advent of social media and expertise in campaigning helped the charter win this time.

Jolly, who supported both plans, said he is happy that Amherst has moved in the direction of professional government.

“This group worked really hard,” Jolly said. “We’re pleased.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.