Amalia FourHawks: Poll-watchers cast long shadow in Northampton

Last modified: Thursday, August 15, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — On June 25, some voters in the city of Northampton experienced what intimidation in the polling places can feel like. Certain voters living in specific areas were affected. They were arbitrarily singled out and subjected to a scrutiny unlike other voters in the same city.

How can this happen in Northampton?

Is it possible that in this bastion of diversity and progressive thinking there were specific voters who were treated differently? That there were specific voters who were intimidated?

This is the very definition of discrimination, to treat one group of people in a different way, based on a particular classification. And furthermore, why didn’t the polling wardens and election officials take action against this?

Simply put, it happened because an archaic law in this Commonwealth allows it. This law makes it legal for an interested party to sit at a polling location and make note of the names of people who have come to vote.

Called “Poll Watchers,” these people are usually associated with a certain side in an election. Their organizers acquire the list of registered voters from City Hall and then send their volunteers out to the polling places to mark.

By law, these people are allowed to sit within earshot of the election officials who are checking voters in and out. The poll watchers mark their lists with the same information on who has voted.

This means that unlike the election officials, who are bound by their office to maintain the privacy of the voter, the poll watcher is under no such stricture and is free to share with their organization or anyone else exactly who came into the ward’s polling place, who stayed home and where and with whom they live.

The poll watchers will argue that the information they are gathering is available to the public, that anyone can go to City Hall and get the same voters’ list and sit at the poll gathering the same information.

And, unfortunately, that is true.

But what happened on June 25 and in other recent city elections is that only certain wards were picked out for poll watching and privacy invasion. Only the residents of selected wards had to deal with the fact that a volunteer for a certain political point of view was watching to see which residents voted.

Only the residents of the targeted area had their names marked off on a list by an unidentified person who is not governed by the rules of the polls. The residents had no say in whether they acquiesced to this gathering of their personal information. If a voter was uncomfortable with a non-election official gathering their information, their only option was to not vote at all.

A number of voters expressed their uneasiness with having a poll watcher marking them off on a list. They felt uncomfortable because they consider their polling place a stronghold of their privacy. If even one voter turned away because of the poll watchers, a terrible injustice has been done to our democratic system.

In this day when anti-bullying messages are a part of every media and are taught in every classroom, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the proponents of one political point of view have said that bullying by intimidation is allowable in our polling places.

They have said discrimination between some sections of our city and others is acceptable.

It is time for this antiquated law to go away. There is no place in Northampton for voter discrimination for any reason.

Every voter has the right to expect equal treatment, no matter where their polling station.

Amalia FourHawks lives in Northampton.


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