Ranked-choice voting advocates in Amherst want council to implement system on its own after Legislature ‘dragged their feet’


Staff Writer

Published: 05-08-2023 2:29 PM

AMHERST — A new form of government in Amherst adopted by voters in 2018 promised that with it would come with ranked-choice voting for town elections, a system that is already in place in Easthampton.

With the third election under Amherst’s council-manager form of government coming in November, advocates for ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, are asking the Town Council to take the implementation of the system into its own hands through a municipal bylaw, rather than waiting for Legislature to act.

The council last week received a petition signed by nearly 60 residents, including Andy Anderson, who has long advocated for ranked-choice voting, calling on councilors to take a different strategy or path forward.

The petition states “the Legislature unfairly dragged their feet for nearly two years until the clock ran out with our petition.”

“We are requesting that the town seek an opinion from the Attorney General’s office as to whether the recommendations of the Ranked Choice Voting Commission can be enacted through a bylaw rather than by special act of the legislature. We believe this is worth serious consideration”

The petition elaborates on the rationale for using this approach.

Anderson used public comment to make a direct appeal to councilors.

“In short, we can’t depend on the state Legislature to pass our home-rule legislation for ranked choice voting, and must try an alternative approach if we wish to use this enhanced voting system in this November’s elections,” Anderson said.

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Council President Lynn Griesemer said she has requested town attorney KP Law provide an opinion regarding the petition. “Once we have that opinion it will be placed on an agenda,” Griesemer said.

Town Council originally set a July 1, 2021 deadline for the Legislature to act so it would have ranked-choice voting in place for the election that November. But that failed, meaning that, for the 10 seats on the council from five districts, the top two vote-getters earned spots, and for the at-large seats on the Town Council, the top three earned election. Similarly, those who get the most votes become the five School Committee members, the six trustees for the Jones Library, the three Housing Authority members and the Elector under the Oliver Smith Will.

The charter doesn’t have provisions for preliminary elections to narrow the field of candidates because the commission that wrote it was confident that this wouldn’t be needed. Only in 2018, when the first council was seated, was a preliminary election held.

Amherst voters have shown strong support for ranked-choice voting when asked the question. More than three-quarters of Amherst residents supported ranked-choice voting in state elections during the November 2020 presidential election, even though the measure was defeated statewide.

Amherst officials are also ready for the change, should it be authorized. The town election last week was the first using new voting machines purchased from Dominion Voting Systems. Town Clerk Sue Audette said these machines will accommodate ranked-choice voting.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Jo Comerford and state Rep. Mindy Domb recently jointly refiled bill H.777 as a home-rule petition, said Katelyn Billings, a spokeswoman for Comerford’s office. Billings said that once scheduled by the Joint Committee on Election Laws, the legislators will be able to provide written testimony and a public notice will go out soliciting similar testimony from residents and others interested in commenting.

Previously, Comerford and Domb told the Joint Committee that having ranked-choice voting is not only in the town charter, but the Town Council also unanimously endorsed a comprehensive report from its Ranked Choice Voting Commission.

Another bill that had been before the Legislature seeking to streamline ranked-choice voting appeals from cities and towns was sent to committee for further study.

Anderson said he believes one way around the legislative approval is due to state attorney general approving the language of the town charter before it went to voters.

“The office of the attorney general then approved the charter before it was approved by the voters,” Anderson said. “We therefore request that the council contact the attorney general as soon as possible and ask for a specific opinion on this part of the charter, to receive assurance that it would be reasonable to implement ranked choice voting without waiting for the Legislature.”