By John Bryan
In March 2018, the voters of Amherst approved the first major changes to the Town Charter since its original adoption in 1938. The new charter incorporated many now-familiar changes, the most significant being a shift from a Town Meeting to Town Council form of government. A less heralded change mandated by the new charter consists of a shift to ranked-choice voting (RCV) for local elections. In 2019, the Town Council appointed a commission to study and report on options for implementing RCV. The Commission submitted its report last December (https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/53914/RCVC_Report_2020-12-01).
What is RCV? Ranked-choice voting allows voters to express multiple, ranked preferences among candidates for elected office. Unlike traditional plurality and approval voting, which requires voters to express a preference for only one candidate per electoral seat, RCV encourages a citizen to cast a vote that essentially says, “If my top choice for this position doesn’t win, here’s my second choice, here’s my third choice, . . .” with those preferences potentially influencing the eventual winner. Under RCV, campaigns tend to be less negative, often-marginalized voices get heard, winners usually enjoy broad support among the electorate, and extremists and spoiler candidates tend to lose. For all its problems, New York’s use of RCV this summer is producing the most diverse city council in its history.
The implementation of RCV in Amherst, unlike most American jurisdictions using RCV, will be complicated slightly by the predominance of multi-winner elections (elections that fill the several seats) rather than single-winner elections (such as the election of a mayor).
In Amherst, four of the five municipal elections conducted biennially are for more than one seat:
- Town Council (13 members: 2 from each of the 5 districts and 3 at-large)
- School Committee (5 members)
- Library Board of Trustees (6 members)
- Housing Authority (3 elected members)
- Oliver Smith Will Elector (1 seat)
The complications arising in multi-winner elections — all quite manageable — arise mainly in ballot design and in the calculation of winners from voters’ ranked preferences. These topics were addressed in the RCV Commission’s report. It also addressed and made recommendations regarding requirements for successful adoption: technical (new hardware and software), legal, policy (how to assess a voter’s intent if ambiguous), resources, and voter education.
Covid-related restrictions on meetings delayed the Commission’s report submission and the Town Council’s unanimous approval until last December, but adoption still requires a special legislative act, which the Council proposed last February. Representative Mindy Domb and Senator Jo Comerford co-sponsored “An Act Relative to the Implementation of Elements of the Charter for the City Known as the Town of Amherst” (https://malegislature.gov/Bills/192/H777). The Joint Committee on Election Laws held a hearing in late June (https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/3803).
In a recent conversation, Rep. Domb expressed hope that the Committee will advance the bill this fall to the other House and Senate committees, and that the full legislature will pass the bill into law before the end of the current session next July, enabling implementation in fall 2023. Passage is not assured, especially in the shadow of last November’s failure to pass Issue 2, which would have approved RCV statewide. That failure does not directly affect Amherst’s adoption of RCV for local elections, but some incumbent legislators — who may shy away from approving an alternative to the system under which they won — could use the statewide results to suggest that RCV lacks popular support. They would be wrong. Some 78 percent of Amherst voters approved Issue 2. In the meantime, based on legal advice from the Town’s attorney, the Council must propose an interim preservation of the Town’s traditional electoral process until RCV can be approved by the legislature and implemented by the Town. (The charter does not have the power to change voting procedures for state and federal elections.)
I mentioned voter education, which is among the most important factors in moving toward a fall 2023 implementation. RCV, even when done well, is complicated and not as easily explained as simple approval voting (our current method). Some of the terminology (such as “fractional surplus vote”) has the potential to spook reasonable people and incite conspiracy theorists (“What ever happened to one-person, one-vote?”). Add to that the use of software to aid in counting and allocating votes, and we could have an environment primed for exploitation by sore losers. (By law, recounts must be done by hand.) Recent disputes locally and nationally illustrate that for RCV to succeed and avoid court challenges, we will need robust, professionally produced voter education programs to instill confidence in the system and in those running it.
So, will RCV be worth all this effort? I believe so. Witness the State of Maine where, in 2010, only 37.6 percent of voters elected Paul LePage as governor in a five-candidate race. In 2016, after six years of his incendiary rule, the voters of Maine adopted RCV. RCV might also have prevented Donald Trump from becoming the Republican nominee for president in 2016. In the early primaries, he was winning in large candidate fields with pluralities in the low 30 percent range among less fringe candidates like John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie, whose combined percentages were higher. Under RCV, Trump might have received 35 percent of first-rank votes, but the remaining 65 percent of voters might have ranked him last, ultimately denying him the nomination. RCV is the anti-fringe approach to governance.
The New York City mayoral primary this summer delivered an unfortunate blow to the reputation of RCV, as the public waited two weeks after the polls closed to learn who won. The reporting delay was attributable to other factors, but RCV got the blame. The rollout of any new voting system entails glitches. Many will remember the confusing “butterfly ballot” in Florida’s 2000 presidential election, which may have given the nation eight years of George Bush instead of Al Gore. When Minneapolis first implemented RCV a dozen years ago, the hand count of some 70,000 votes also took about two weeks. Experience and machine counting have since reduced the counting process there to two days. And RCV has been used successfully for more than a century in Australia, Ireland, and Scotland. In Massachusetts, Cambridge has used it since 1941.
True, RCV won’t compensate for a field that lacks competent, committed candidates from whom to choose. But once understood, RCV may draw to the field candidates who previously believed they had no hope of winning because they aren’t bomb-throwers. Sometimes everyone’s second choice is better than several factions’ different first choices. And that’s a good thing.
[Editors’ note: The RCV Commission Members were Tanya Leise (chair), Jesse Crafts-Finch (vice-chair), Susan Audette (ex officio), John Bryan, Ellen Lindsey, Rob Robertson, and Peggy Shannon.]