Saturday, March 27, 2010

Power of the Web in Amherst Override election

Stephanie O'Keeffe Select Board Chair (center), John Coull,her dad, Amherst Redevelopment Authority Chair (ducking), Jada Kelley (cute kid).

(Note to readers: This was just submitted as part of my Umass online Journalism course as my mid-term project, so it is written for folks--unlike yourselves--who may not be insiders.)

Ballot questions are decided for a multitude of reasons, with numerous hard to measure independent variables playing a role--from weather to marketing.

The Amherst property tax Override of 2010--which passed 58% to 42% had almost exactly the same voter turnout--31.5%--as did the Amherst Override election of 2007 which failed 47% to 53%.

So why the dramatic difference?

The price point of course is number one: $2.5 million Override losing vs. $1.68 million winning. And at the 11th hour an orchestrated $350,000 "teacher giveback" and higher state aid than anticipated made it seem the most recent Override was even lower as town officials promised not to tax to the full extent of the new higher levy if such "unforeseen revenues" magically appeared after the Select Board set the $1.68 million figure in early February.

Because after the 2004 $2 million Override passed (although voters turned down a $2.5 million Override on that same ballot), $650,000 in extra state aid did materialize and the town negated that amount in 2005, but took the full amount plus 2.5% every year since.

On a more mundane level this time Override proponents (two separate ballot Committees) used lawn signs, and the main Vote Yes For Amherst group raised $5,000 to the No More Overrides group $4,000 as of March 8th filing. 'Save of Schools' spent money on lawn signs (using the maroon/white colors of Amherst Regional High School) but reported zero spending.

Both groups had a web page, but the Yes group was far more extensive, interactive and updated frequently. The local political blogosphere is dominated by two blogs--Larry Kelley's 'Only in Amherst' and Catherine Sanderson's 'My School Committee blog'.

And while Sanderson never took a formal position on the Override, her lack of cheer-leading which she provided in 2007, spoke volumes. In fact, Override supporters cast her as a villain for not providing that lock step support commonly demanded for anything pertaining to the Schools.

'Only in Amherst' launched about a month before the 2007 Override and was a constant source of irritation to pro-Override forces. Even more so this time around, peaking with nine uploads on election day and over 800 viewers.Click to enlarge/read

On the Web front, Override proponents first salvo was an online (blank check) petition started the first week of January with a inauspicious goal of 1,000 signatures targeting Amherst's five member Select Board the gatekeepers of all things Override. A blog counterstrike.

Rules allowed for anyone of any age to sign and obviously an Internet signature collection is far and away easier than acquiring ink-and-paper signatures. Today, even after getting 3,058 yes votes on paper ballots the Internet petition stands at only 658 signatures (many from "name not displayed," or out-of-state, or High School aged non voters.)

Localocracy, a website founded by two Umass/Amherst students dedicated to getting local voters involved with local elections launched in early February using Amherst as a beta test market. Rules were you had to be a town registered voter to post comments or vote on issues and you were given 10 rating points to vote up or down comments that supported your views thus driving them higher up on the page. But anyone could come "view" the results.

By election day Localocracy garnered 816 views (after almost two months) for the Override issue with 53 votes cast giving the Override a whopping 4-1 margin of victory rather then the actual 3/2 victory. Conversely on election day alone 'Only in Amherst' received 827 views and 'My School Committee Blog' 673 views.

But 'Only In Amherst' strongly advocated against the Override while 'My School Committee Blog' tried to remain neutral. So who had a bigger impact?

Since the Web loves to be free, wild and woolly anytime you place restrictions--having to register, or using a real name for posting comments--you greatly restrict participation. And both local Amherst blogs receive a majority of hits from viewers outside Amherst.

Recently Sanderson enabled "Comment Moderation" which suspends comments until "Blog owner approval" thus slowing down the freewheeling give-and-take. As a result, her daily visits have decreased by 20% or so, but still well above Localocracy.
Neither Sanderson or Localocracy use photos or video while 'Only in Amherst' almost always does. The Comments on Localocracy are limited to a Twitter-like 500 characters although you can post comments more than once (not obvious to neophytes.) On some posts Sanderson receives over 100 comments and even now with moderation enabled she still gets dozens and dozens of comments per post.

Sanderson's power emanates from her public role as elected School Committee member just telling her thoughts (and sometimes feelings) in a strait forward manner that blogging so easily encourages. Localocracy provides a somewhat stilted platform for engaged voters to do the same. But in Amherst, the average voter is not overly engaged.

While local spring elections for town offices average a 15% turnout (Override and changing the form of government Charter questions get twice that) the Presidential election every four years garners over a 75% turnout.

Another reason Localocracy may have failed to become a hot bed of comments and discussion like two the local blogs is Override opponents are typically older/retired and may not have fully embraced the Web. Also, Baer Tierkel, a leading architect of the 2007 and this 2010 Override is listed as one of only three members of their "advisory board," thus creating mistrust.

But if you viewed the module dedicated to the Override discussion at any point during the six or seven weeks it was up for discussion/voting clearly the outcome was predicted.

The Override victory was won, not in cyberspace, but simply by having more boots on the ground.

Over a hundred volunteers using traditional methods: displaying hundreds of lawn signs, making thousands of phone calls, huddling in town center and media advertising in the same newspapers that editorially supported the Override.

This time the Dinosaurs won. This time...

Sunday 3:45 PM. Peak day being Tuesday Election Day



Anonymous said...

The teachers disapprove publicly of Ms. Sanderson's blog and then privately log on constantly and post there.

They would lose a forum for their views if she closed up shop.

And, somehow, unlike cops or firefighters or public works employees or Town Hall employees, the teachers believe that they constitute an interest group in town that must be mollified by elected officials.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, remember when Superintendent A-Rod was sent to the showers, he and everybody else initially blamed the caustic nature of the "local blogosphere," as though the Web can be divided up.

Good writing/Journalism is simply holding up a mirror to reflect what actually happened--warts and all.

No medium allows for that better than the Web.

Anonymous said...


That's a great photo - I hope you included it in your "mid-term"!

But don't you expect most of the 5000 votes in 2007 and this year were cast by the same set of voters? If so, one needs to account for the shift of some 400 votes. Last time many of the "No" voters were associated with Vince and his ilk, but this time some switched sides, forming the "Save Our Schools and Services" coalition to support the override.

Good luck on your "final,"

Your Friend

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, good point. As you know Amherst is fairly transient but about 90% of the voters this time around probably voted three years ago.

And as I mentioned the 'No' folks being older probably lost a few due to, umm, passing away over the past three years (or moving to Florida.)

Vince did get over 1,300 votes and is nothing if not strong in North Amherst.

Oddly he and I were on the same anti-Override page 20 years ago, when we kicked ass on the failed first attempt in the People's Republic.

(Used the photo of course as part of my mid-term presentation).