PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Voters are heading to the polls this Tuesday to cast ballots for one of the three candidates in the Berkshire district attorney's race.
But they have to figure out the game -- this election, just like last year's for state representative in North County, won't simply identify a party candidate but who will win the office.
So if their favorite candidate loses, did that pull a vote from their second choice? Vote splitting has been an ongoing conversation in every election when there are more than two candidates. Two candidates can pull from the same like-minded voting pool and a third candidate cruises to victory -- sometimes with less than a majority of the vote.
"We have two progressive women and we also have two experienced candidates. You have Judith Knight and Paul Caccaviello who both are experienced prosecutors so they might split the vote because they have a long history or experience. Or the two progressive women are also very likely to have a vote split situation because they are pulling from a similar base of supporters. Two candidates split the vote and third candidate nobody actually prefers could win office. That's the issue," said Meghan Molinari.
Molinari is the Western Massachusetts director of a campaign to change the way elections are done. A momentum has been growing behind ranked-choice voting. The method is fairly straightforward: a voter ranks the candidates in order of which they prefer. The winner of the office needs to get a majority of the votes.
"With ranked-choice voting, you could say rank Andrea Harrington and Judith Knight, rank one of them first and the other one second. You would be rest assured that if your first choice can't win, your vote still counts toward somebody you like," Molinari said.
In such an election the No. 1 votes are counted first. If somebody has a majority of No. 1 votes, he or she is the winner. But if none of the candidates have above 50 percent of the vote, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the No. 2 votes are counted and added to each candidates total. That goes on until somebody crosses the 50 percent margin.
"This solves a lot of the issues in our current voting systems such as vote splitting and spoilers in an election and it guarantees a majority," Molinari said. "Right now, people win by a plurality so it just whoever gets the most votes ends up winning. But that doesn't necessarily represent the majority of the voters."
Voter Choice Massachusetts, an offshoot of a national organization pushing for the change, is planning to propose two pieces of state legislation -- one to bring such a system to the state elections and another to enable cities and towns to adopt it more easily. The state of Maine just recently implemented the system and places like Cambridge have been doing it on some elections for years.
"You don't want voters to feel like they have to strategically vote or vote for the lesser of two evils. You shouldn't have to be a mathematician or a game theory master in order to just go into the booth and vote for who you prefer to be in office," Molinari said.
Two years ago, Rinaldo Del Gallo was a candidate for the state Senate. It didn't take long for him to realize that he didn't have a chance at winning and he considered dropping out. He asked himself if he was going to split a vote.
"I knew in May I couldn't win. I had a heartfelt conversation with myself, why am I in the race? I did think I was pushing two candidates to the left, I wasn't splitting a right and a left. If there were two progressives against somebody who wasn't so progressive, I would have felt the need to drop out," Del Gallo said.
That's not how candidates should feel, Del Gallo said. He doesn't think people should be dropping out of a race because of vote splitting or being discouraged to run because they don't have the money or connections.
Molinari said often people are pressured to vote for a front-running candidate. When a front-runner loses and there is a vote splitting situation, the candidate and the voter are blamed.
"We either blame the voter for voting for candidates that aren't frontrunners when frontrunners lose. Or we blame the candidates for even running. We shouldn't ever dissuade people from wanting to have a voice in an election. This gives voters more choices," Molinari said.
Del Gallo also remembers growing up in Pittsfield as a child and how his father loved voting for the late Peter Arlos for City Council. But in fear that Arlos wouldn't get the votes to be in the top four for at-large, he'd only bullet Arlos so other candidates didn't get an extra vote that could knock him off.
"Your other choices might knock Peter Arlos off the stage. So you might say, I'm just going to bullet Peter Arlos. I've done it. I've done it for races for School Committee. It is a logical thing to do," Del Gallo said.
Del Gallo said the beauty of ranked-choice voting is that a person's No. 1 candidate doesn't lose the voter's choice. As long as that candidate is in the race, then that vote counts toward that candidate.
"Your second, third, fourth, and fifth choices will not affect your earlier choices," Del Gallo said.
Molinari said it makes for cleaner campaigns as well. Rather than candidates attacking each other, ranked-choice voting would encourage them to focus on their positives to pick up a second or third vote.
"You need primary supporters, people who vote for you first. But this also guarantees that candidates reach out to other voting bases. This encourages positive campaigning. You don't want to be knocking down your opponents because you don't want to disenfranchise their voting base," Molinari said, adding that in other places candidates have worked together in races, telling voters to vote for them and check their similar opponent as No. 2.
She added that with the current system a candidate could see a lawn sign for an opponent and skip knocking on the voter's door because he or she already decided. With ranked choice voting, however, the candidate would still want to secure a second-place vote and would do so. Molinari said that expands the conversation about the issues in an election.
Making such a change will require voting machines across the state to be changed. However, Molinari said the majority of the voting machines used in the state only needs a software upgrade. She said the state Legislature has money to make upgrades to voting machines and can use that for the rollout.
"It is not actually a huge cost to the state," Molinari said.
Anybody who has been to local events recently has probably met Molinari. Voter Choice Massachusetts has been passing out fliers and signing people up for their mailing list to provide information about it. The organization was once mostly operating in the Boston area but with Maine's passage of the law, it has grown its momentum across the state -- coming to the Berkshires this year as well as being embraced by The Boston Globe.
Molinari said ranked-choice voting is an inevitability for Massachusetts and the organization is hoping to move it along.
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