So many candidates, so little time (64 days) until the primary.
With eight Democrats vying to fill the 1st Franklin District House seat being vacated by Rep. Stephen Kulik and six Democrats running — five of them write-ins, no less — for the Hampshire-Franklin-Hampden Senate seat vacated by Sen. Stan Rosenberg, sorting through where they all stand and who should get your vote can be tricky.
It may be especially tricky in the Senate race, where making sure that voters fill in the exactly correct name and address of their favorite candidate, and where candidate Chelsea Kline has the decided advantage of having her name as the only one appearing on the ballot.
The reality of these two races among four legislative seats without incumbents running in western Massachusetts, a region without much clout traditionally other Beacon Hill, makes the election results all the more important. And yet, as candidate Nathaniel Waring, who’s distinguished himself as “a different kind of candidate,” with no previous experience in government at any level, put it, “I don’t have to convince 51 percent of the people in my district that they need to vote for me; I need to convince maybe 20 percent of the people to vote for me. That allows you to be a little looser, with a less worrying about broad appeal to the masses.”
The other candidates, crisscrossing a 19-town district that’s nearly half the size of Rhode Island, are trying to distinguish themselves by touting their experience, their energy level or their commitment to making change, although their positions on issues sound very similar. Knocking on hundreds of door, phoning hundreds of voters, attending dozens of fairs, town festivities and meet-and-greet events, the eight Democrats know that, with no Republicans on the ballot for the House Seat (or for Rosenberg’s Senate seat, for that matter) the election will be decided in 10 short weeks.
Yet another campaign, which has lots more time, is just gearing up, trying to offer a solution to this exact situation.
Voter Choice Massachusetts, which launched in January, is trying to spread the word about the advantages of ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, which they hope to place as a ballot question in 2020 — the same election when the victors in September’s Senate and House primaries will likely be seeking re-election.
Ranked-choiceRanked-choice voting allows for voters to indicate their first, second, third and fourth choice candidates — and so on — simulating a series of runoff elections until there is a majority winner, with the lowest-ranked candidate eliminated in each round of tabulations.
“This is a perfect case for ranked-choice voting,” says Amherst College Academic Technology Specialist Andy Anderson, an advocate of the approach, about the eight-way 1st Franklin race. He expects that, with several more weeks of campaigning, distinctions in the field of hopefuls will shake out, “but you may still end up with a few candidates in the 25 percent range. With ranked-choice voting , people can look at them and say, ‘I like these guys and these guys and these guys. I’ll rank these a little more than those guys.’ You’d hope that voters will take look at everyone and have some idea of what they are, instead of latching onto one right away.”
The problem with an eight-way contest, he pointed out, is that it tends to dilute the power of the vote.
“If the person who has the greatest popularity among them has only 20 percent of the vote, that means 80 percent of the people are voting against them,” he said. “That’s the fundamental issue. This is the method to down to someone who not only has the core support of 20 percent but who also has broad support, so that more voters are satisfied with the outcome.”
Amherst adopted ranked-choice voting as part of its new town charter and expects to use the method in its first town council election in 2021, said Anderson. The only other Massachusetts community with it until now has been Cambridge — with the oldest instant-runoff system in the nation for its city council and school committee elections.
But that could change, either with a 2020 ballot question, or through pending legislation that’s been co-sponsored by Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, I-Amherst. House Bill 2897, which was also co-sponsored by the late Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, would provide ranked-choice voting as a local option; the other, House Bill 377, would establish ranked choice voting for all state contests.
Goldstein-Rose, who won election after a six-way Democratic primary in 2016, said, “Right now, two similar candidates running could really hurt each other’s chances, because they’ll split votes. Under ranked-choice voting, they can help each other’s chances, because they’ll be providing similar messages and won’t split votes.”
Goldstein-Rose, who pointed to the subtleties and styles among large pools of candidates who seem to have very similar positions, said ranked-choice eliminates the need for voters to have to “vote strategically” to avoid spoilers.
“You can always prevent the person you think is worst from being elected, without sacrificing support for the person who you” want most,” he said. “It more accurately represents voters’ choices.”
The system could even allow for ranking multiple write-in candidates, as there are in the race for Rosenberg’s former Senate seat. And since the standard is that the voter’s intent is clear, remembering all of the candidates’ addresses and correct name spellings wouldn’t even be critical, said Goldstein-Rose.
More than 65 percent of voters in the 1st Franklin District approved a nonbinding referendum question on the 2004 ballot supporting ranked-choice voting for state office, while a pair of 2002 referendum questions in two Hampshire County House of Representative districts own with more than 68 and 71 percent, respectively.
“We know a lot of people out here already heard of it and feel strongly about it, so we need to go out and talk with people to harness that support, making it a runway to a ballot question,” said Liz Popolo, who heads the Voter Choice Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley Chapter. Even though there were differences over the Amherst charter itself earlier this year, she said, the ranked-choice aspect of the charter had unanimous support.
Instead of facing “a dilemma a lot of voters have to make,” she says, between a favorite candidate and one who’s most viable, balancing whether to choose “somebody you don’t like as much because you’re worried about getting someone you don’t want,” ranked-choice balloting allows voters to express a their range of feelings about the candidates without the risk that their ballot is wasted if their top choice doesn’t get a majority.
The current system, Pololo says, pointing to 2016 GOP Presidential primary, “favors outlier candidates, because if you have multiple candidates who draw from a similar base of support, or a partisan base, or demographic base or a policy base, they will split that vote, and that can hand the election to somebody who’s more of an extreme or different.
Ranked-choice voting discourages negative campaigning and — in a way that emphasizes cooperation rather than competition — can even encourage coalition building among candidates to encourage voters to rank a fellow candidate second, so they both consolidate their bases of support.
“As a candidate, you need not only have core base of support, but a broad reach,” she says.
In Maine, where voters used ranked-choice voting for the first time in the 2018 primary, after a widely supported 2016 referendum and a 2018 “people’s veto” of an attempted legislative delay of implementation, University of Maine political science Associate Professor James Melcher said, “It doesn’t stop all negative campaigning, but it makes all candidates try to appeal to other candidates, so you get alliances. “It has the potential to really engage voters more. If you have an eight-way race, you could easily win with 25 or 30 percent of the vote, but other people could hate that person.”
Ranked-choice voting, which can require multiple successive tallies before a winner is declared, requires a public education campaign, such as the Maine Secretary of State’s Office video linked to below.
On the Web: www.votechoicema.org