Northampton Charter Committee calls for ranked-choice voting, voting age of 16

  • The Northampton Charter Review Committee meets on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • Voters in Amherst precinct 4 at the Bangs Community Center got a sticker after visiting the polls Tuesday. KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 5/22/2019 12:30:57 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The Charter Review Committee is recommending that the city adopt four significant changes to municipal elections, including lowering the voting age to 16 and implementing ranked-choice voting.

The votes were taken at the committee’s Tuesday meeting, and will now be included in the committee’s recommendations to be submitted to the City Council and mayor for consideration. In addition to lowering the voting age and ranked-choice voting — which allows voters to put candidates in a preferred order rather than voting for a set number of candidates — the commission approved two other suggestions: mailing ballots to all registered voters and removing the need to cite a specific reason for receiving an absentee ballot.

“That package, taken together, is tremendously significant,” committee Chairman Stan Moulton said of the recommendations. “I would bet no other community in Massachusetts has recommended all four of these measures.”

Only the city of Cambridge has instituted ranked-choice voting on the municipal level in Massachusetts, though it passed in Amherst last year and will be implemented no later than 2021. And last week, Easthampton’s City Council approved an amendment to the city’s charter — to appear as a ballot question in November — that would implement ranked-choice voting for precinct city councilors and the mayor.

Moulton said that, to his knowledge, no communities in the state have adopted a voting age of 16, though there are petitions before the state Legislature from a handful of municipalities intending to do just that. Moulton seemed enthused about the possibility of younger residents having the chance to vote in city elections.

“They’re a very impressive group,” he said of 16- and 17-year-olds.

As for mailing ballots to all registered voters, Moulton said only three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — have implemented such a policy.

“As far as we know there are no other communities in the U.S. that have proposed this on the municipal level,” Moulton said.

All but one of the proposals passed with all eight members of the commission who were present voting in favor. The lone exception was the issue of mailing ballots to all registered voters, which passed 7-0 after Lyn Simmons, the mayor’s chief of staff, abstained.

“These big-picture issues are very important, I feel, to send a message to the community in Northampton that we want to be responsive to low voter turnout … and do all we can through revising the charter to improve on it,” Moulton said.

Those issues, however, still have a way to go before coming law.

The committee will continue to meet throughout the year, and will submit its recommendations to the City Council and mayor by Dec. 31. In the case of ranked-choice voting, further action would be needed on the part of the state.

“It cannot happen without legislative approval, and the Legislature is very likely to require an election,” said Bob Boulrice, who represents Ward 5 on the committee. “The Legislature is going to require that the City Council get the voting public of Northampton to express their support — or not — for ranked-choice voting.”

That vote could come in a special election, Boulrice said, or would more likely take place during city elections in 2021. And ranked-choice voting might not be implementable until municipal elections of 2023, he added.

Two pieces of legislation currently under consideration both in the state House and Senate could make things easier, Boulrice said. One bill would allow municipalities to decide themselves on the question of ranked-choice voting, and the other would implement the system statewide.

The committee was set up to review the city's charter, which lays out how Northampton's government functions. It was last amended in 2012, and a provision was added that year that called for a review in every year ending with a nine.

The panel is made up of nine people: one for each of the seven wards, one from the City Council and one from the mayor’s office.

City Clerk Pamela Powers was at Tuesday’s meeting. She said she is excited about the possibility of implementing some of the recommendations, but if they are, there will be plenty of work to do.

On the question of ranked-choice voting, she said there would be an initial investment needed to set up the system, and there would need to be significant voter education efforts. But she seemed in favor of the system.

“I do feel strongly that if this is what the voters want, this is a great opportunity to get out in front and make it happen,” she said. “It’s different and it’s a great opportunity for us to lead the way.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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