University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Professor La Raja and Grad Student Van Erve Challenge Assumptions about Amherst Town Meetings

The town meeting is a peculiarity of Amherst that many residents are proud of. Among the only towns of its size in the state that does not have a council-manager or mayor-council form of government, Amherst instead operates by the quintessential New England form of government: a town meeting. Common sentiment is that town meetings are more representative than mayor-council forms of government, because instead of nine or ten representatives for a town of 37,819 people, Amherst has 240. But just how representative is this form of government? The answer, according to UMass' own Professor Ray La Raja and graduate student Wouter van Erve, is not very.

La Raja and van Erve, collaborated to demonstrate that on many counts, Town Meeting members are very different from the average resident of Amherst. An average Town Meeting member is 20 years older (59 to 39) than the average resident, and they are 14% more likely (93% to 79%) to be white. La Raja and van Erve also showed that a significantly higher percentage of Town Meeting members own homes (80%) while less than a majority of residents in general own homes in Amherst (49%.) Perhaps most surprisingly, the largest discrepancy found was with regards to the ideological slant of the Town Meeting members—using data generated by Catalist, van Erve and La Raja showed that the average Town Meeting member was much more liberal (14.5 out of 100) than the average voter (45 out of 100, with 1 being most liberal and 100 most conservative.)

But La Raja and van Erve don’t stop there, and continued to demonstrate both the reasons for this discrepancy and why we should be concerned about the gap. According to the authors, the relatively low ratio of voters to representatives is actually a bad thing for the quality of democracy—this is because it takes relatively few votes to secure a seat, and so few people know or care to vote in the town meeting elections. When such a low percentage turn out (only 6.6% of the population,) and with high numbers of Town Meeting members, there is effectively no electoral mechanism to hold individual members accountable. Currently, town meeting members are essentially voted into office by people who know them personally, meaning they only represent a very small subset of the population.

La Raja and van Erve then propose a number of solutions to increase the quality of democracy and representativeness of government in the town of Amherst: having Town Meeting members affiliate with political parties; or perhaps even switching to a mayor-council form of government. Whatever the solution, La Raja and van Erve have shown that we ought to be wary in proclaiming that Town Meetings are the form of government closest to the people. 

The original article that this research summary utilized was published in The Hampshire Gazette on June 10th, 2014, and can be found here

--James Fahey '15

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  • Faculty News