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Columnist Jim Oldham: Uninspiring local elections; hope for future state contests

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Saturday, September 21, 2019

Amherst’s local elections, scheduled to take place Nov. 5, won’t offer much opportunity for voters to weigh in on the issues that affect them.

In this second election under the new charter, most incumbents will be reelected without competition. When the window for candidates to file papers to run for election closed this week, the following lineup emerged: all six incumbent trustees for the Jones Library are running for reelection with no challengers, and the three Housing Authority incumbents face no opposition.

The only race that provides voters with any reason to turn out is the election of School Committee, where the five committee seats will be contested by four incumbents and three challengers.

With no elections next year, it won’t be until 2021 — three to five years after most of these incumbents last faced a competitive race — that voters might have an opportunity to influence who runs these branches of Amherst government.

Note that there is no Town Council race this fall. Councilors elected last year will serve for three years, with their end-of-term coinciding with the end of the two-year terms of officer holders elected this fall. After that, elections for all these bodies will happen on a two year cycle, in odd-numbered years.

While it’s not unusual here, as in many other communities, for local elections to feature some uncontested races, this year seems particularly bleak. Each of the last two elections under Amherst’s old system saw four candidates competing for two seats on the library board, yet this year, with all seats open and two years between elections, rather than just one as was previously the case, voters have no choice at all.

This is particularly unfortunate considering the major issues the libraries face regarding staffing, building needs and more, the lack of community consensus related to these issues, and the many years that several of these incumbents have already served.

Even the School Committee election, with three challengers in the race, provides voters only limited ability to make changes due to the structure of the election. Since each voter can support up to five candidates, with the top five vote-getters winning the five seats, a small majority can easily win all seats and leave a large minority with no representation at all.

As I noted in my column last month, this happened in the council elections last year when all three townwide seats were won by candidates endorsed by the Amherst Forward PAC, despite a closely divided electorate. A similar outcome is a real possibility with the School Committee in our only contested election this fall.

Hopefully, this will be the last election in Amherst where such an outcome is possible, since we now have a Ranked-Choice Voting Commission charged with bringing a proposal for ranked-choice voting in Amherst to the council next year, which the council is required to act on well in advance of the 2021 election.

Under ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates by order of preference, and votes are counted in a series of rounds, with the last-place candidate in each round being eliminated and the votes for that candidate going to the voter’s next choice out of the remaining candidates.

This ensures results in which an elected body can’t be dominated entirely by just one faction, and instead has a make-up reflective of the range of perspectives in the community. It would have been better if ranked-choice voting had been implemented from the start of the new form of government. Given that it wasn’t, residents should pay close attention to ensure that it is adopted and implemented for all future elections.

Speaking of ranked-choice voting, signatures are now being collected to pass a state law to establish this system of voting for all Massachusetts statewide offices, state legislative offices, federal congressional offices and some others, including both primary and general elections, beginning in 2022.

Led by Voter Choice Massachusetts (voterchoicema.org), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, the campaign aims to place a question on the ballot in 2020 unless the Legislature acts first to pass laws implementing ranked-choice voting.

This important reform is past due. As WBUR has reported, “60 percent of the winners of competitive races for governor, 44 percent of winning state representative candidates, and a whopping 89 percent of winning candidates for district attorney failed to earn a majority mandate from voters in either their primary or general election.”

Ranked-choice voting offers a better approach that has been shown to increase participation of both candidates and voters, while incentivizing more civil campaigns, and motivating candidates to appeal to a broad set of voters rather than just their core supporters. Watch for an opportunity to sign the petition and go to voterchoice2020.org to find other ways to support this effort.

Jim Oldham served as a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5 between 2002 and 2018. He has written a monthly column for the Bulletin since 2007.