Redrawn Amherst districts give more power to BIPOC voters

Staff Writer
Published: 10/19/2021 7:14:21 PM

AMHERST — More clout for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities in local elections will come if Amherst’s voting maps are redrawn as recommended by an advisory committee.

While members of the Town Council on Monday expressed appreciation for the way that the redistricting plan by the Districting Advisory Board could increase electoral equity for Black and Latino residents, two councilors said they are concerned about attempting to keep University of Massachusetts students, and other college students, out of municipal decision-making.

“We very intentionally tried to dilute student voices,” said District 4 Councilor Evan Ross. “I’m really discouraged by how students are treated in this report.”

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said younger people seem to have been put into as many districts as possible as a way of “disempowering” 41% of Amherst’s population.

She pointed to the Southwest Area of the University of Massachusetts campus, where half of the 2,500 population would be in Precinct 4, and joined with the South Amherst apartment complexes in Precinct 7 to make up a new District 3, while the other half of that student population, in Precinct 9, would be joined with downtown Amherst neighborhoods in Precinct 10 to form a new District 4.

But District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam, whose current district encompasses the entirety of the Southwest Area, said that she believes having Precincts 9 and 10 together would actually give more power to students. “I do not see a disenfranchisement of students in this map,” Pam said.

The redistricting is required following the 2020 federal census that shows the town has 39,263 inhabitants, an increase of 1,444 in population, with more residents living in downtown and on the UMass campus, including at the Commonwealth Honors College.

Under the proposal, which keeps 82% of voters in their same precincts and 61% of voters in the same districts, District 1 would continue to be made up of North Amherst and areas north of the UMass campus in Precincts 1 and 3, including Townehouse, Presidential and Brandywine Apartments and Puffton Village, and District 2 would continue to be made up of Precincts 2 and 6, including Cushman, areas bordering Shutesbury and Pelham, as well as Village Park and Rolling Green Apartments.

Aside from Districts 3 and 4, the other major change would be to District 5, which under the proposal would contain Precinct 5, with parts of downtown, and Precinct 8, or most of South Amherst.

Irene Dujovne, chairwoman of the committee, said requirements for the redistricting included ensuring no more than 4,000 people were placed in any of the 10 precincts and that the number of residents in each precinct was within 5% of the mean.

Eight of the 10 precincts required adjustments because current maps don’t provide equal representations. And precincts had to be paired in different ways so the number of active voters in each district was similar. For instance, the current District 3 has between 700 and 800 active voters, while District 5 has close to five times as many active voters, or around 3,400.

Tracy Zafian, a member of the committee, said the density of Southwest was a significant challenge, and she disputed that there was any effort to discriminate against students.

Committee member Peggy Shannon said keeping students together as much as possible was in tension with the goal of ensuring the voices of people of color are heard.

Mahek Ghelani, a student representative to the Districting Advisory Board, said she is not overly worried that students living at Southwest will not participate in local government. Ghelani said most of the students stay in the high-rise dormitories for only a year before transitioning to off-campus housing.

For the most part, the plan received plaudits from councilors, especially the aspects that encourage more participation.

“The argument they make is a pretty compelling one,” said District 3 Councilor George Ryan, who said equity is an overriding concern, though he is discouraged to see Dana Street’s connection to downtown lost and instead serving as a connection between the UMass campus and the South Amherst apartment complexes.

“I think they’ve done a remarkable job,” said District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, whose district largely remains intact.

The council could vote on the plan Oct. 25 so it can submit it to the state’s Local Election District Review Committee by the end of October. 

If approved by the state, the precinct and district changes would go into effect sometime in 2022, possibly in time for state primary and general elections, meaning that some voters would be in changed precincts, with new in-person sites at which to vote.

Since districts are only relevant to electing 10 of the 13 members of the Town Council — with two from each of the five districts, and the other three elected at large — voters would not notice that change until the 2023 election, with councilors elected this fall continuing to serve from their existing districts until that election.

Several residents also provided feedback.

Jennifer Page of Potwine Lane said that disconnecting the East Hadley Road apartment complexes from the well-to-do neighborhoods, such as Amherst Woods, in a district would benefit lower-income residents who have been disenfranchised.

As to the concern about students not voting, Jennifer Taub of Lincoln Avenue said most freshmen likely won’t be registering to vote in time to participate in the biennial town elections.

Amy Mittelman of Columbia Drive said she feels the plan is undemocratic as residents could be voting Nov. 2 for district councilors who will not be representing them when the changes are made.

Maria Kopicki of Country Corners Road said the current government structure, with 10 of the 13 councilors elected from five districts, is not compatible with the way the town’s population is configured.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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