Staff Spotlight: Andy Anderson

This week’s Staff Spotlight, published in a celebration of election day, features Andy Anderson, an academic technology specialist at the college and an advocate for Massachusetts Question 2, Ranked-Choice Voting Initiative. The initiative aims to enact ranked-choice voting for primary and general elections for state executive officials, state legislators, federal congressional and senate seats, and certain county offices in Massachusetts beginning in 2022. 

Q: What’s your work at Amherst?

A: I work in academic technology services and help faculty and students with their teaching, learning and research. I focus on the more mathematical, statistical and spatial sorts of problems people have. I do a lot of work with the sciences, natural sciences, and the social sciences in terms of the geographic information technology that I work with. They often want to map things out. Every so often I get into the humanities in various ways. It’s a large group of faculty and students that I work with over the course of this. 

Q: What is the Question 2 initiative and ranked choice voting?

A: The Question 2 initiative is a ballot initiative in Massachusetts to use ranked choice voting for state level offices and congressional offices. One of the problems in the current system is that it allows for vote splitting. If you have more than two candidates in a race, two of them might split their vote between them and the third candidate might win, even if the people who vote for them are less than the majority. A majority votes for the other two candidates, so a candidate with less than the majority ends up winning because of this inherent feature in plurality voting. This actually happened in the Massachusetts Congressional District Four Democratic primary a month ago, where the winner had 22 percent of the vote. 

It’s fine when there’s only two candidates, which is often the case. But quite often in Massachusetts, you’ll find that there are three or more candidates. We want to prevent the number of candidates from distorting the election results. We also want to make sure that whoever wins actually has majority support. 

With ranked choice voting, you would rank the candidates on your ballot. Then, all of the ballots are counted based on whether your top choice was still in the race. Then, you would drop the weakest candidate and count again. The idea is that everyone votes in multiple rounds, and then you come to a majority decision where some have to compromise. As a result, candidates can’t just focus on being elected by a small part of the electorate. We believe ranked voting produces a much more representative result and improves democracy.

Q: What have you done to promote ranked choice voting at Amherst?

A: I’ve been involved in the Question 2 initiative for almost four years, when I first found out about the initiative. We often study electoral systems and the mathematics of the elections. Ranked choice voting is a simple enhancement to our current system and is generally preferred. As a part of this campaign, I’ve actually been talking to various groups and answering questions on Facebook. I’ve also written an article about the history of majority rule in the U.S. 

I’m currently working on another article on various Amherst alumni involved with ranked choice voting. Albert S. Bard, a 1888 graduate of Amherst College, became a lawyer in New York City and helped bring it to New York City back in the 1930s. He got interested in ranked choice when it started to come popular in the progressive era and got the college to adopt it in 1924 to elect alumni members of the board of trustees.

Q: Aside from the organizing you’ve done surrounding ranked choice voting, have you done any work relating to the coming presidential election?

A: I’ve been focusing on getting the ballot passed as Question 2. This does not actually affect the presidential election. The presidential vote is actually for its electors, and if the electors get together and don’t actually elect one candidate with a majority of their vote, then the US Constitution assigns the responsibility to Congress to decide, so that they can meet in person and have multiple votes to reach a majority decision.

John Adams actually wrote majority rule into the Massachusetts constitution back in 1780, the basic idea that if people couldn’t choose someone by majority rule, they passed it to the legislature. But a lot of people didn’t like the legislature making this decision and so it was changed to a plurality vote in 1855. Adopting ranked choice voting is a way to restore that original idea of majority rule, which we don’t have in many cases.

Q: How did you become passionate about ranked choice voting?

A: I heard about it a couple of decades back from someone in the Green Party who was saying it would help third parties. Many don’t consider third parties because they don’t think they have a chance and instead vote for the most likely parties. That means they can’t express the true party they support. Four years ago I found out that people were trying to bring this to Massachusetts and Maine [which now has a ranked choice system in place]. I really feel like this is something that can improve our democracy and make sure we have a majority decision.

Q: What do you do in your time off?

A: I like to hike and take long bike rides. Those are the main things that I do when I get out of the house, which is rare nowadays because of the pandemic.