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Editorial: Ranked-choice voting worth consideration

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Thursday, March 01, 2018

Ranked-choice voting is a concept worth considering, and we’re glad that it will get attention this spring in Amherst and Hadley.

The method, also known as instant runoff voting, allows voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference. If one candidate fails to receive a majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Ballots which ranked that candidate highest are then redistributed to the voter’s second choice. That process is repeated until one candidate has a majority.

Maine is the only state which has adopted ranked-choice voting, though its future there is in doubt after questions were raised about the system’s constitutionality and the Legislature tried to repeal it.

Cambridge is among a handful of communities in the United States to use the method. It is more widely used in other countries, including Australia, Canada, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the United Kingdom, India and New Zealand.

“Ranked-choice voting frees voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than having to strategize and choose only one,” says Liz Popolo, spokeswoman for the Pioneer Valley chapter of Voter Choice Massachusetts, an advocacy group. “Winners of elections conducted this way truly have majority support.”

In Amherst, creation of an election study commission to consider ranked-choice voting is part of the proposed charter changes that are on the ballot March 27. If the charter is approved, a seven-member commission would be appointed and required to propose a measure by Sept. 1, 2020.

While the Amherst Charter Commission is split on proposed changes in town government, all nine members support ranked-choice voting.

Hadley voters will consider adopting ranked-choice voting for municipal elections at the May 3 annual Town Meeting. Even if the measure wins approval, other steps are needed — including support by the Select Board and state Legislature — before ranked-choice voting is actually used in Hadley.

Popolo believes that if towns like Amherst and Hadley take the first step toward enacting ranked-choice voting, it would send a message to the Legislature. “As our organization grows, we’re always supporting efforts in towns to advance it on their own,” Popolo says. “Without enough grassroots movement, various legislators don’t feel compelled to move it through committee.”

State Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose of Amherst is among 31 co-sponsors of a bill filed last year that would give all cities and towns in the state the option of adopting ranked-choice voting. That bill, which was referred to the Joint Committee on Election Laws, also would allow communities to return to their previous voting method after four years.

Goldstein-Rose, who last week dropped his Democratic Party registration to encourage a more nonpartisan approach to government, believes ranked-choice voting is also a step in that direction. “It gets candidates to be more friendly, forces more engagement with constituents and means less polarization.”

The only community in the state authorized to use ranked-choice voting is Cambridge, which in 1941 adopted the method still used today to elect City Council and School Committee members.

“The Pioneer Valley has quite a long history of supporting ranked-choice voting as en electoral reform,” says Popolo, referring to nonbinding referendums in 2002 and 2004 in the 3rd Hampshire and 1st Franklin state representative districts. “That tells us folks across the Pioneer Valley understand ranked-choice voting quite well.”

Proponents say it gives voters the maximum impact of their ballot because they can rank all candidates for a particular office, rather than voting for just one. And advocates argue that ranked-choice voting saves money by eliminating the need for primary elections.

However, opponents contend that the system is too complicated and confusing for some voters, and that it increases the cost of tabulating ballots because either an expensive computer system or labor-intensive hand-counting is required.

Besides the ballot measures in Amherst and Hadley, ranked-choice voting also may be considered in Northampton. “It’s something I’d like to explore doing,” says City Council president Ryan O’Donnell. “I think it’s worth discussing, especially for special elections.”

However, O’Donnell cautions that before the city moves ahead with a change, there would need to be extensive public comment and likely a study committee.

We agree with that approach. Educating voters and the cost of a more complicated system of counting ballots should be part of the equation for any community considering ranked-choice voting.