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Ranked-choice under debate in Hadley, Amherst



Staff Writer
Thursday, February 22, 2018

When four candidates competed for a vacant at-large council seat in Northampton in 2016, a preliminary election with low voter turnout whittled the field to two finalists.

For advocates of ranked-choice voting, including the Pioneer Valley chapter of Voter Choice Massachusetts, having that large a field for one seat is a perfect opportunity to use a system that would give voters more say about their preferred candidates, save cities and towns time and money in holding elections and gets those running for office to act more civilly and responsibly.

“Ranked-choice voting frees voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than having to strategize and choose only one,” says Liz Popolo, the Pioneer Valley’s chapter lead. “Winners of elections conducted this way truly have majority support.”

Such election reform, sometimes called instant runoff voting, appears to be gaining momentum, as residents in at least two local communities will have opportunities to weigh in on the topic this spring.

In Hadley, adopting ranked-choice voting for municipal elections will be on the May 3 Annual Town Meeting warrant. In Amherst, forming a commission to study ranked-choice voting is a component of the charter proposal that will be decided March 27.

Popolo said ranked-choice voting would lead to election outcomes that more accurately reflect the will of the voters. If Hadley and Amherst residents support these efforts, the Legislature would more likely make such electoral changes easier.

“As our organization grows, we’re always supporting efforts in town to advance it on their own,” Popolo said. “Without enough grassroots movement various legislators don’t feel compelled to move it through committee and get it to a bill.”

Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose of Amherst has been a ranked-choice voting, supporter, calling it an element to bring a nonpartisan spirit to elections.

“It gets candidates to be more friendly, forces more engagement with constituents and means less polarization,” Goldstein-Rose said.

He introduced a bill that would eliminate many of the hurdles cities and towns now face in implementing instant runoff voting, essentially pre-approving those communities that vote for this system.

“The Pioneer Valley has quite a long history of supporting ranked-choice voting as an electoral reform,” Popolo said, pointing to nonbinding referendums in 2002 and 2004, in the 3rd Hampshire District and the 1st Franklin District, that yielded at or above two-thirds support. “That tells us folks across Pioneer Valley understand ranked choice voting quite well,” Popolo said.

Cambridge has used it since 1941 for its city council, and Minneapolis, St. Paul, Oakland and San Francisco have adopted it for their city elections, Maine adopted it for statewide races and it was also used in the voting of students and alumni that led to the selection of Mammoths as the mascot at Amherst College.

Andy Anderson, an academic technology specialist at Amherst College and local adoption lead for the Pioneer Valley chapter, said he is encouraged.

“We’re starting to see it many different places,” Anderson said.

What’s made it easier to use is computers that count ballots.

“What tends to slow it down the process of multiple rounds of counting, particulary if you don’t have a machine to do the counting,” Anderson said.

Even if Hadley Town Meeting adopts the idea, Popolo said there is a series of approvals that are needed, including a vote from the Select Board, support from the local state representatives, endorsement from a legislative elections committee and getting at least two-thirds votes in both chambers of the Legislature.

Though the Amherst Charter Commission is only endorsing the charter 5-3, with one abstention, all nine councilors support ranked-choice voting. If Amherst’s charter passes, the town will be directed to form a commission that develops a proposal for how ranked-choice voting will be implemented in Amherst.

In Northampton, a required charter review process every 10 years could lead to implementation of some form of ranked-choice voting.

“It’s something I’d like to explore doing,” said City Council President Ryan O’Donnell, who added that there have been information conversations.

But O’Donnell said there would need to be extensive public input and likely a committee studying it.

“I think it’s worth discussing, especially for special elections,” O’Donnell said.

Popolo said people feel like they have real choice and there is more civility at those campaigning seek support not only of those on one end of spectrum, but those in the middle, as well

Johanna Neumann, chairwoman of Amherst for All that endorses the charter, said ranked-choice voting will reduce rancor and divisiveness of political campaigns.

“Ranked-choice voting not only empowers voters to vote their conscience, but it will also help improve the tone of our town’s political discourse,” Neumann said.

A series of educational events organized by Voter Choice Massachusetts have included demonstrations of cookie tasting in Shutesbury and a pastries and desserts event in Amherst with Goldstein-Rose.

The next event will be held Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. at Amherst College’s Webster Hall, Room 102.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.