Amherst adopts Ranked Choice Voting for local elections

History in the Making!

On March 27th, 2018 the town of Amherst became the second community in Massachusetts (after Cambridge) to adopt ranked choice voting (RCV) to elect its town officials. The main issue on the ballot was a new charter that would replace Amherst’s 240-member representative town meeting and 5-member select board with a 13-member town council. However, voters on both sides of the heated debate supported the use of ranked choice voting, and it was a unanimous decision of the charter commission to include it in the proposal.

With just under 40,000 residents, Amherst has 10 precincts that will be combined into 5 districts that will each elect 2 councilors. In addition, 3 councilors will be elected town-wide. All terms will be two years and coincident, allowing for multiple-winner RCV. There will therefore be some amount of proportional representation on the council.

The first town council will be unique in that councilors will be elected using plurality voting in November 2018 for 3-year terms, and from 2021 onward they will be elected with RCV. One of their early tasks will be to appoint a ranked choice voting commission with the purpose of working out implementation details. A proposed by-law must be delivered to the town council by September 1, 2020, who must then adopt the proposal, with or without amendments, within 90 days.

Most of the other races in Amherst will also be multiple-winner and town-wide RCV, specifically the 5-member school committee, the 6-trustee library board, and 3 members of the housing authority. There will not be a mayor; instead, the council will continue to appoint a town manager.

Support for RCV in the Pioneer Valley extends back more than a decade, and included non-binding referenda in 2002 and 2004 that all passed 2-1 and that directed three state representatives in Hampshire and Franklin Counties to vote in favor of RCV legislation. Several members of the Amherst Charter Commission were therefore already familiar with RCV prior to their service and brought it into their considerations. Commission Chair Andy Churchill came to one of the early meetings of the Pioneer Valley chapter of Voter Choice Massachusetts a year ago to let VCMA know of the Commission's interest. VCMA’s policy director Greg Dennis then provided information and feedback to the Commission, and VCMA members and Amherst residents Andy Anderson, Brendan Gavin, and Matt Berube attended public hearings and provided comments supporting RCV’s inclusion in the charter.

Once the charter proposal was finalized, and as the campaign to pass it heated up in February, the Pioneer Valley Voter Choice chapter mobilized to educate the citizens of Amherst about ranked choice voting. They attended charter debates and other public forums, and talked with and distributed information to potential voters. Andy Anderson organized a panel presentation at Amherst College on the the history, application, and future potential of RCV that featured VCMA Advisory Board member and Mount Holyoke College professor Douglas Amy, VCMA Executive Committee member and FairVote cofounder Howard Fain, Pioneer Valley VCMA Speaker Linda Castronovo, and Charter Commission Vice Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke. The panel also included Alejandro Nino Quintero, a student member of the committee that used RCV to select the “Mammoths” as Amherst College’s new mascot, and Jénine Shepherd, chair of the College’s student government, which is considering using RCV for its elections. Pioneer Valley Chapter Lead Liz Popolo and Andy Anderson gave interviews to the local newspaper, and Liz, Linda, and Andy also appeared on a local news radio show.

In the end, the charter proposal passed 3,502-2,491 (58% in favor). While RCV was not the focus of the proposal, it was broadly supported on both sides of the charter debate as a common sense improvement to voting. May the rest of Massachusetts soon follow!