Editorial: New ideas for local elections in Northampton, Amherst

  • Holly Hargraves, left, and Wayne Williams Hargraves vote in Northampton in 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Friday, May 31, 2019

Amherst and Northampton are advancing two ideas that, if approved, could mean big changes at municipal elections. In Amherst, some members of the Town Council last week floated an ordinance that would cap donations to local candidates for office at $250 for individuals and $125 for political action committees. If the idea goes through, Amherst would join Northampton, which is believed to be the first community in the state to lower the $1,000 state cap to $500.

And in Northampton, the city’s Charter Review Committee last week recommended Paradise City become perhaps the first in the state to lower the voting age to 16 for municipal elections. The proposal, an idea the City Council has already approved by resolution, now heads to the mayor and council for further discussion.

While we believe lowering the voting age is an idea whose time has come and hope Northampton makes it happen, we’d like to see more study about the $250 cap under consideration in Amherst. It’s unclear whether such limits actually accomplish the goals of breaking down barriers to entry and increasing the number of candidates running for election.

The measure has not worked out that way in Northampton’s first two elections after its cap was passed, though the rule is still in its infancy. In 2015, there were three contested races — one challenger against incumbents for two at-large positions on the council, four candidates for two at-large positions on the School Committee, and two candidates for one ward on the school board. In 2017, contested races included a two-way race for mayor and city clerk, and two seats on the School Committee.

That meant a vast majority of the races for these two important bodies featured more of the same — incumbents cruising to easy wins.

Perhaps there are other options to consider in addition to a spending cap. Other communities throughout the nation are experimenting with another type of campaign finance reform — matching funds, paid for through public financing projects that make each donated dollar go further.

The idea, rolled out in New York City some 30 years ago, is to create a public financing project that matches funds for every dollar raised. In New York, for example, candidates can participate in the voluntary program in which they receive $6 for every $1 they raise through small donations — under $175 — from residents. So in this case, a $50 donation would turn into $350. Portland, Oregon, is launching a similar measure next year, and Denver is eyeing a 1:9 ratio.

A cap may lower the barrier to entry for local candidates, but matching funds ensure those smaller contributions have more influence. The idea, of course, is to encourage candidates to woo all constituents, not just those with deeper pockets. The matching funds also might prove to help first-time candidates who typically don’t have name recognition or personal finances to fall back on.

Other cities are experimenting with “democracy vouchers,” which give eligible voters money to back a contender of their choice. Seattle rolled out such an initiative in 2017, and other cities are considering the idea, which is a way to get more people engaged with local elections and their local leaders.

These ideas are worth considering as part of a larger examination of campaign finance reform. Caps alone may not be enough to lure local candidates, but caps in combination with other changes might add incentive.

Officials also might determine the matching funds or vouchers are too expensive for communities to absorb. But if the goal is to increase the opportunity for people from all socioeconomic groups to run for office, additional measures should be studied.

Young voters

Youth ages 16 and 17 are more than capable of critically analyzing issues and candidates and should have a say in who represents them.

But don’t just take our word for it. Jim McGovern, the congressman from this region who represents many of these potential new voters, said in an editorial board meeting with the Gazette earlier this year that the idea is a good one. He’s found that teenagers are educated about issues and committed to investing the time to research subjects that interest them, which we argue is more effort than many adults take into the voting booth. McGovern even quipped that he’s had more intelligent conversations with youth in his district than with fellow congressmen.

Students already play a key role in helping all of us stay informed about hot-button issues. In recent days, the Gazette has featured middle school students from Amherst writing about climate change and the Green New Deal. We’ve profiled and covered town hall meetings in which high schoolers from Northampton asked state politicians a bevy of questions, and youth in communities throughout Hampshire County have held rallies and walkouts on a variety of other issues, from gun control to the #MeToo movement.

These civic-minded 16- and 17-year-olds are ready to cast a vote for mayor, for City Council and for School Committee, just as they are ready to get behind the wheel of a car or work and pay taxes. They also have a stake in what happens in their communities, as is the case right now in the debate over teacher contracts.

Let’s give young people that chance.