Judge dismisses Amherst election lawsuit

  • Voting stickers are displayed at the Bangs Community Center in Amherst during a state primary election. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2018 12:32:43 PM

AMHERST — An initial election for Amherst’s first-ever Town Council will proceed as scheduled Sept. 4 after a Hampshire Superior Court judge Monday rejected a preliminary injunction sought by two University of Massachusetts students.

“The plaintiffs fall short in meeting their burden to obtain preliminary injunctive relief,” Judge Richard J. Carey wrote in his eight-page decision. “The plaintiffs have not shown that the election schedule in place negatively impacts them at all, either as voters seeking information about candidates or as potential candidates running a campaign.”

Select Board Chairman Douglas Slaughter said in a statement that campaigns for council seats are already underway and that some absentee ballots have been cast.

“The judge has confirmed the town’s efforts to ensure the greatest voter turnout, and his decision will guarantee that the election will be the best reflection of the will of the people,” Slaughter said.

The charter adopted by voters March 27, which creates the 13-member Town Council and eliminates representative Town Meeting and the five-member Select Board, established the preferred election schedule as coinciding with the state elections set for Sept. 4 and Nov. 6. A special Town Meeting then requested a home-rule petition that was adopted by the state Legislature, with that bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Jerry Guidera, a member of the Amherst for All campaign that supported the charter, said Carey’s decision is good for the town and its voters.

“We see the court as supporting our efforts to give voters more of a say in government,” Guidera said.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of UMass senior Caitlin Cullen, an elected Town Meeting member who intends to graduate in December, and UMass sophomore Lily Tang, who is an Amherst voter.

“We are disappointed that the court failed to acknowledge how this election schedule uniquely and significantly undermines the constitutional rights of students to meaningfully participate in the electoral process,” Paul Rudof, a Northampton attorney who brought the lawsuit, said in an email. “Moving forward, the town of Amherst must do better to protect the rights of college students, who comprise such a large percentage of the town.”

Rudof argued at the Friday court hearing that the election schedule violates the “sacred constitutional rights” of local college students to run for office and to vote. He observed that a court in the 1970s warned Amherst officials to be cautious about when elections are scheduled because of its large student population.

Town attorneys Lauren Goldberg and Joel Bard of KP Law told Carey that there is no evidence of students being unable to participate in the election, as voters or candidates, even observing that two undergraduates, John Page and Dillon Maxfield, are among the residents running for Town Council.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman, who was in court Friday along with several other residents, including Charter Commission Chairman Andrew Churchill, noted the town has made special outreach to Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts to engage students in the electoral process. This includes a special web page designed for college students seeking to learn how and where to vote, and a flyer that can be shared with students.

“The town has taken numerous steps to engage the public in general, and students who reside in town in particular,” Slaughter said.

Carey noted that he was not responding to a class-action lawsuit, and that the alternative election calendar offered by the plaintiffs would have a final election Jan. 24, 2019, which would be just as burdensome on students.

“Some college students supported the current election schedule believing reasonably that its timing on the same day as the state primary and final elections would boost voter turnout,” Carey wrote. “The alternative schedule advocated by the plaintiffs would cause other problems for college students.”

Bockelman said the decision is not final and could be appealed, though Rudof would not comment on whether the lawsuit could continue in some form.

The lawsuit has already cost the town an undetermined amount of money for the time KP Law has spent defending the election calendar, Bockelman said.

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


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy