Amherst town clerk seeks to consolidate polls at one location

  • Amherst Town Hall FILE PHOTO

  • Amherst Town Clerk Shavena Martin FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 04, 2020

AMHERST — Early voting, absentee voting and voting by mail are options for people participating in this year’s state primary and presidential election.

But for Amherst voters casting in-person ballots at the Sept. 1 state primary, the election could present a new experience as Town Clerk Shavena Martin proposes consolidating the seven neighborhood polling locations for the town’s 10 precincts into a solitary site at the Amherst Regional High School gymnasium.

“The advantages of moving our precincts to the high school is it’s a controlled environment for the in-person voting (and) it eliminates confusion for our voters as to where they vote,” Martin said.

Martin said that the idea is similar to what other communities do, including Belchertown and Greenfield, and that the high school’s proximity to Town Hall will simplify how elections are run.

“It provides greater and more consistent oversight by our office,” Martin said. 

There is likely to be cost savings, as well. The town has $67,828 budgeted for elections and voter registration in fiscal year 2021. That is used to pay election workers and constables and the rental fee for private buildings used as polling places.

Martin said she will need a favorable vote from the Town Council, likely at its Aug. 3 meeting, to execute the consolidation plan.

Councilors appeared to be supportive.

“It seems to me that this plan is incredibly reasonable and makes so much sense, and is simple and elegant,” said District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont.

DuMont said one of the only issues will be ensuring that transportation options are available for voters who might otherwise have difficulty getting to the high school.

Martin said she understands there may be worries about removing polls from neighborhoods, and that some who vote at the North Zion Church in North Amherst center in Precinct 1 could have to journey eight miles to the high school.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis said the town should work on possible shuttles for people, noting that people who live on East Hadley Road, despite being close to the malls and shopping centers in Hadley, can still have 90-minute rides on PVTA buses.

“I think that aspect of this really needs to be worked out or there’s going to be a whole contingent of people we’re trying to get to vote who won’t be able to make it,” DeAngelis said.

District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said he has supported concepts for at-large polling places and believes the concept will increase student turnout.

Town Council President Lynn Griesemer said the council will have to draft a report on possible adverse impacts based on race, national origin, age and disability.

Martin said she worked with School Superintendent Michael Morris, Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson and Department of  Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring on the plan, which was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The high school gym will be a safe place to set up voting booths and get people in and out of the building.

“There’s ample space for social distancing (and) we’re able to have a single entrance exit traffic pattern,” Martin said.

The pandemic has also created other concerns this summer. North Fire Station, where voters in Precinct 2 have voted, is a locked-down facility only open to emergency responders.

North Zion and Immanuel Lutheran churches, for Precinct 1 and 3 voters, respectively, are not having in-person services and mandate strict guidelines and protocols if elections are held there.

The Bangs Community Center, for Precincts 4, 5 and 10, and Munson Memorial Library, for Precinct 8, are both closed to the public, and there are questions about whether the schools used for voting, Fort River, Crocker Farm and Wildwood, could be ready for Sept. 1.

“We have serious concerns about holding the elections at schools,” Martin said.

Martin said her office will use a marketing strategy so turnout won’t be suppressed, and there will be signs at each current polling place to redirect voters if the high school becomes the new site.

The communal aspect of having all voters at one location may also encourage more people to come out to the polls on election day, especially after the pandemic ends, Martin said.

“It’s my priority to safely set up a polling location or a method for voters to vote in person,” Martin said.