Columnist Jim Oldham: Vote, but know who you are voting for

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Although the Amherst town election on Tuesday is a bit of a dud, it still merits attention. While the incumbent Library Trustees, Housing Authority Commissioners and Oliver Smith Will Elector are all running unopposed for reelection, there are seven strong candidates competing for five seats on the School Committee: Katie Lazdowski, Ben Herrington, Peter Demling, Kerry Spitzer, Eric Nakajima, Lauren Mills and Allison McDonald.

It’s worth turning out to vote for your choices among these individuals, even though marking the rest of the ballot will be meaningless, since results in those other races are already known.

Despite the contested School Committee election, I’m not endorsing any candidates. In part, I’m inspired by one of the seven, Ben Herrington, who asked a local Political Action Committee to take him off their list of endorsed candidates because, he says, “I don’t need an organization to speak for me or summarize my views. I also don’t want to compete in an election with an unfair advantage.”

Like Herrington, all of the candidates can speak for themselves, and there are plenty of ways for voters to hear from them directly.

A good place to start is Amherst Media, where five of the candidates (Herrington, Demling, Mills, Spitzer and Lazdowski) have recorded short video statements: amherstmedia.org/content/2019-amherst-school-committee-candidate-statements.

A different five (Lazdowski, Herrington, Demling, Spitzer and McDonald) have provided written statements that are posted on the town website: amherstma.gov/3508/Candidate-Statements.

All seven have also responded to several questions from the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC). A link to that Q&A can be found near the top of the SEPAC webpage, arps.org/sepac, in the section labeled “Current Happening.”

Most of the candidates have webpages, and many have Facebook pages as well, all easily found with a quick internet search. The one candidate without a webpage, Lauren Mills, invites voters to send questions to her directly at laurenM.4schoolcommittee@gmail.com.

After getting to know the candidates, it will be time to choose who to vote for. We each get five votes for School Committee, and it might seem we should use all five, especially given our lack of input on who will serve on the other boards. Actually, using fewer votes could have more impact.

The questions for each of us as voters are: What am I trying to achieve? How can I best use my votes to contribute to the outcome I prefer? Just because you get five votes doesn’t mean it is in your best interest to use them all. At the end of the day, a five-member school committee will be elected regardless of how many votes we each use. What is less certain is whether our votes will have benefited the candidates we most want to support.

Consider some of the goals and motivations a voter might have. Perhaps they are particularly impressed by one, two or maybe three particular candidates. Perhaps they want to promote racial diversity on the committee by supporting candidates who are people of color, or promote economic diversity by voting for candidates who rent. A voter who wants changes in policy may want to elect new members to the committee, while one who wants continuity may aim to see incumbents reelected.

Obviously, we are all motivated by multiple factors, and don’t normally vote based on a single variable. But still, it is important to be aware of one’s top goals for the election, and not undermine them while trying to achieve a secondary goal, or worse, just using up remaining votes.

In any of the above scenarios, the voter’s ability to contribute to their desired outcome could be enhanced by voting less, and diminished by voting more. This is because in each case, the voter who uses all five votes will be simultaneously voting for and against their preferred candidates.

Imagine a voter has identified three strong favorites to vote for. With those candidates marked on the ballot, they then select two other candidates they care less about to complete the ballot, perhaps from a slate recommended by others, or simply selected on a hunch. Since every candidate is competing against every other one, those last two votes actually nullify the benefit the voter hoped to give to their favorite candidates relative to these second choices.

A better strategy is often to use less than one’s full allocation of votes, and just vote for candidates who truly inspire. This avoids votes that weaken the chances of candidates one is most committed to, or that inadvertently defeat a good candidate one is ignorant about.

Hopefully, this will be the last election in Amherst where such tactical thinking is needed. In two years, we should have a ranked-choice voting system that will eliminate the unintended consequences of the current system and better represent all voters’ preferences.

For now, I hope Amherst voters will get to know the candidates, and come out Tuesday to vote for a few of them.

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.