Ray LaRaja & Wouter Van Erve: How representative, really, is Amherst Town Meeting?

Last modified: Monday, June 09, 2014

AMHERST — A recent commentary here in the Valley lamented that Amherst Town Meeting is a rambling, unfocused mechanism that takes much longer than it should to make decisions. We agree that governing is not terribly efficient in Amherst, but that is not our main concern with it.

We are troubled by the fact that a legislative body that is elected by fewer than 1 in 10 registered voters is not truly representative.

Our analysis indicates that Town Meeting members are a rather unique set of residents compared to the rest of the Amherst population. Our study includes college-age students who live in Amherst, but not on-campus students.

Given the popular conception of Town Meeting as a pure form of democracy, our argument that it is unrepresentative may come as a surprise. After all, the ultimate authority for political decisions in Amherst is not assigned to professional politicians or bureaucrats but to the citizens themselves. These are the very people we might think of as friends and neighbors.

To be sure, some basic statistics imply that this is a government of the people. Considering that there are 240 Town Meeting members in a town with a population of about 37,000, there is one member for every 157 residents. That is pretty good, especially when compared to the U.S. Congress, where each member represents more than 700,000 people.

However, to claim that Town Meeting is close to the people of Amherst is misleading when we dig deeper.

On several demographic dimensions, it is hardly representative. The average age of eligible voters is 39 years old, while that of Town Meeting members is 59. Regarding race, 79 percent of voters are white, 6 percent black and 5.5 percent Hispanic. By contrast, Town Meeting members are 93 percent white, 1.2 percent black and 3.7 percent Hispanic.

Regarding wealth, we have few statistics, but we do know that 49 percent of eligible voters are homeowners, while close to 80 percent of Town Meeting members own their homes. Clearly, our political decision-makers don’t have the same attributes as the rest of Amherst.

There is also a mismatch with respect to political preferences. It is widely acknowledged that Amherst is a progressive town, with voters having preferences that lean decidedly left of the ideological center.

Using data generated by Catalist, a voter research company based in Washington, D.C., we determined that Town Meeting members are much further to the left than the constituents they represent. Catalist ranks individuals on a scale from 1-100, where 1 is most liberal, and 100 most conservative. In Amherst, Town Meeting members average 15 points on this scale, indicating an intensely liberal slant, whereas the average voter is much more moderate and scores 45 points on the same index.

So while Amherst does not have the polarized politics we see on the national stage, we can hardly say that our town’s political elites (yes, that means you, Town Meeting members) accurately represent the rest of the town.

These discrepancies in representation raise important issues of democratic legitimacy. The strongest claim for having a representative Town Meeting is that it reflects the will of the people rather than professional bureaucrats, politicians and special interests.

But is this true? Our data suggests that Town Meeting in Amherst is fairly unrepresentative both descriptively and substantively.

This would be less disconcerting if we had confidence that residents could effectively hold their Town Meeting members accountable. In most healthy democracies this accountability is ensured through elections. Elected officials lose votes if citizens are dissatisfied with their performance. But this classic electoral mechanism does not work well in Amherst Town Meeting for a few reasons.

First of all, Town Meeting elections lack even the most basic information that would help voters hold members accountable. Most residents don’t know who is running, what they stand for, or how they voted in previous sessions. So how does the voter make a decision?

This leads to a second problem. If you don’t know who is running, why turn out to vote? In the 2013 Annual Town Election, voter turnout to elect Town Meeting was just 6.6 percent (a typical figure). In contrast, the average turnout in municipal elections in similar-sized cities that have mayor-city council governments was 22 percent — still low when compared to national election turnout, but almost four times higher than turnout in Amherst’s local elections.

In Amherst, those who vote tend to know those who are running for office. Our analysis shows, not surprisingly, that these voters share the same demographic and preference profile of Town Meeting members. In other words, the voters and members run in the same social circles, while non-voters do not.

Finally, accountability in a democracy only works well when there is electoral competition. But in Amherst it takes only a few votes to secure a spot and many races go uncontested.

The reality of politics is that perfect representative institutions do not exist. Therefore, we must consider trade-offs depending on the things we value. With respect to town meeting there is pride in a New England tradition that has stood for centuries. This unique form of local government is a significant mark of our political identity and heritage. Town meetings also provide a forum for civic engagement among those interested in politics, even more so than mayoral systems.

Thus, it is a civic training ground for a subset of citizens, and provides a context for some to speak out publicly.

On the other hand, the mayor-city council form of government has alternative positive features. First, there is, paradoxically, greater transparency in governmental decision-making. It is far easier to hold accountable a few elected leaders rather than 240 individuals we know little about. Second, decisions are more likely to get made on behalf of the majority. City councilors who try to block a policy would face majority voter wrath if the policy they try to obstruct is broadly popular. In contrast, members of Town Meeting face no such threat, and a minority faction can rather easily filibuster policies by showing up at poorly attended town meetings to defy potential supermajorities.

Finally, there is more room in mayoral-council systems for compromise because the arena involves a manageable group of decision-makers who interact repeatedly. In Town Meeting, by contrast, members rarely see each other outside designated meeting times, which encourages interaction that is more about mobilizing factions rather than deliberating and compromising with those who disagree.

These are a few comparisons between two governmental systems. We could make more. We are not necessarily advocating that Amherst change its system of government, but raising awareness that Town Meeting is not the representative body many claim it to be. If the residents of Amherst would like to increase the amount of information and accountability in the system, we suggest that candidates affiliate with political parties with names that allow voters to distinguish where they stand relative to other candidates.

Right now, voters choose randomly or select members based on their personal networks, which doesn’t seem fair to residents who don’t know people running for Town Meeting (the very people who don’t seem to be represented much in Town Meeting). Of course, introducing political parties might create the kind of fractious politics residents want to avoid. But our sense is that such fractious politics exist as an undercurrent and that making these fault lines more transparent to voters might improve democracy and accountability in our town.

Ray La Raja is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wouter Van Erve is a graduate student in political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


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