Amherst, Northampton residents push Legislature to OK ranked-choice and noncitizen voting; Northampton also seeks to lower voting age

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-22-2023 4:38 PM

BOSTON — Teenagers in Northampton have taken a lead role in actions aimed at combating gun violence, confronting climate change and reducing the use of plastics in the city in recent years.

Yet even though policies implemented by elected local officials can affect their lives, most high school students have no say in who represents them on City Council or the School Committee. This could change, though, if the state Legislature signs off on a home-rule petition that would give 16- and 17-year-old residents the right to vote in preliminary or city elections.

That measure is once again up for consideration on Beacon Hill, along with requests from both Northampton and Amherst to allow ranked-choice voting and to allow noncitizen residents the right to vote in local elections.

“This is a change that makes sense to anyone interested in creating a more civically engaged community,” Lila Nields-Duffy, who serves as an interim co-chair for the Northampton Youth Commission, said about House Bill 716 at the Joint Committee on Elections on Wednesday. “Young people are indisputably some of the most active members of our community, just like in communities across the country.”

“Voting in municipal elections for 16- and 17-years-olds would only allow for more voices to be heard in the democratic process, resulting in a more representative government,” added Maisie Tuck, also a member of the Northampton Youth Commission who serves as a liaison to the City Council.

Their appeals to legislators came during a three-hour hearing in which Northampton’s three requests — lowering the voting age, implementing ranked-choice voting and allowing noncitizens to vote — were heard. The bills were filed by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton.

Amherst bills

In addition, Comerford and Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, filed two bills on behalf of Amherst: to implement the ranked-choice voting that is embedded in the town charter, and which would automatically begin for this fall’s elections; and to give noncitizen residents the right to vote in local elections.

Comerford told the joint committee she supports offering more voting opportunities.

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“I’ve had the privilege of seeing the local processes and the deep and abiding engagement, so that the bills before you are the product of a united citizenry to seize the 21st-century opportunity of voting expansion and voting rights,” Comerford said.

Comerford applauds the idea of more teens voting.

“I think we have only things to gain by allowing rising stars to participate robustly and help chart the future of their communities,” she said.

Domb spoke about the need for ranked-choice voting, as well as opening up voting to noncitizens who live in Amherst, such as some international students at the University of Massachusetts who are raising their families in town.

“We have a lot of folks who are noncitizens in the town of Amherst,” Domb said, adding that they have a lot of stake in town decisions. “I’m thrilled the Town Council passed this initiative and is seeking home rule support for it.”

During the meeting, Amherst At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, who served as vice chairwoman of the Charter Commission, said ranked-choice voting was a universally supported measure, and preliminary elections were removed from the charter as a result.

“Five years after adoption, it is now the sole remaining part of the charter awaiting implementation,” Hanneke said. Amherst, she said, wants to be like Easthampton and Cambridge, where ranked-choice voting already happens.

“Amherst sees how well it works to promote a diverse group of elected officials, and wants those benefits for our town,” Hanneke said

“The residents of Amherst clearly support ranked-choice voting for all elections in town at a very serious level,” said Council President Lynn Griesemer.

Northampton bills

Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra said the 2019 Charter Review Committee unanimously recommended the changes the city is seeking, and community support was voiced at public forums.

“These bills have garnered substantial support from residents, local organizations and elected officials alike, and are crucial steps toward empowering voters, enhancing democratic processes and ensuring fair and representative elections here in Northampton,” Sciarra said.

Robert Boulrice, who chaired the Ranked Choice Voting Committee, said he would like to have a vote on the measure in the fall elections.

“We admire our friends in Easthampton and their ability to use ranked-choice voting for their elections and we look forward to do doing so as well,” Boulrice said. “We believe it is a better way to elect people.”

The ability for young people to vote was also addressed by Noah Leaf, who is another interim co-chair of the Northampton Youth Commission. Leaf said the School Committee makes decisions on everything from COVID precautions to hirings. “However, we’ve had no say in the makeup of our School Committee,” Leaf said.

Susan Voss, a former Northampton School Committee member, also spoke in favor of younger people voting, referencing the involvement of students in political campaigns.

“From firsthand experience, I can report they are mature, thoughtful and compassionate — and they show up,” Voss said.

While local petitions were heard by the joint committee, Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, through Senate Bill 433, and Smitty Pignatelli, D-Lenox, through House Bill 711, are trying to allow local option ranked-choice voting to be implemented by local elections without having to go through the home-rule petition process. Rausch also has filed Senate Bill 438 with a broader scope of electoral reforms.

“These bills are about empowering our partners in local government to support the will of their constituents in regard to voting,” Rausch said.

Those who spoke, almost all in favor of the expansion of voting rights, ranged from Greg Dennis, policy director for Voter Choice Massachusetts and Nancy Brumback from the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, to Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts and Vanessa Snow, policy and organizing director at MassVOTE.

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