Berkshire County power politics

The race for district attorney in Berkshire County is shaping up to be a primer on what’s wrong with elections in Massachusetts.

The first sign came in March, when then-District Attorney David Capeless announced he was stepping down after 14 years in office and turning the reins over to his assistant, Paul Caccaviello. Capeless admitted that he decided to step down early so Caccaviello could run for the office with the advantages of an incumbent, and internal emails showed just how he orchestrated the handoff with the help of Gov. Charlie Baker.

Caccaviello is now facing two rivals who are both progressive women — Andrea Harrington, a self-styled reformer and defense attorney from Richmond, and Judith Knight, who has experience as a defense attorney and prosecutor and ran against Capeless in 2006.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield looked at the race and decided to play a little power politics herself. She figured Harrington and Knight would appeal to progressives in favor of criminal justice reform, splitting that vote and leaving the field to Caccaviello. So Farley-Bouvier met with the two women separately and broached the idea of one of them dropping out so the other would have a better chance of defeating Caccaviello.

“I’m looking for a progressive district attorney,” Farley-Bouvier told the Berkshire Eagle. “I am for the full implementation of criminal justice reform.”

Both Harrington and Knight said they had no intention of withdrawing from the race, and Farley-Bouvier was criticized for meddling in the election by Caccaviello, who seems to have forgotten how he became the interim district attorney in the first place. “It seems more than a little inappropriate, in an attempt to influence the outcome of an election,” Caccaviello said. “It’s obviously an attempt to win the election by getting the two to merge.”

A similar dynamic is occurring in the race for Suffolk County district attorney. Three candidates of color are competing in the crowded field, and some activists have urged the minority community to coalesce behind one of them rather than splitting their support among all three.

These seemingly anti-democratic calls to winnow the field of candidates reflect a growing concern about a Massachusetts electoral system where crowded fields often lead to election victory parties where a candidate wins with a narrow plurality, not a majority, of the votes and like-minded candidates are at a disadvantage.

Some say the solution is ranked-choice voting, where voters vote, or rank, the candidates in order of their preference. Ballots are tallied by computer as a series of run-off elections. If no candidate secures a majority, the lowest-ranked candidates are removed, one at a time, and their ballots are redistributed to the voter’s next-place choice. Instead of using power brokers to winnow a field of candidates, ranked-choice voting lets voters do it.



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