Tallying the Votes in a Cambridge City Election Is No Small Task
Although the polls in the city election close tonight, results won't be in for another week or so.
In a system known as Proportional Representation (PR), which distinguishes Cambridge from any other city in the United States, workers for the Election Commission take days to count each ballot by hand.
"It [usually] takes five and a half business days," former Election Commissioner Edward J. Samp, of the counting process. "[We] start on a Wednesday or the day following the election and finish next Tuesday."
PR arrived in Cambridge in 1940 as part of "Plan E," a form of city government approved by the Massachusetts legislature which features a strong city manager, a nine-member city council and a semi-autonomous seven-member school committee, according to the Election Commission.
Proponents of the system, which allows voters to rank candidates in terms of preference, say it was intended to combine minority representation along with majority control in the lawmaking body.
"One of the attractive features of the system is that it broadly represents the range of people in Cambridge," says Professor of Government Kenneth A. Shepsle.
Under PR, voters can cast ballots for as many candidates as they desire, ranking them according to preference.
A complicated formula is used to determine a quota (usually about 10 percent of the vote). Candidates who receive that number of votes or more are declared officially elected.
Ballots marked first for a candidate who exceeds the quota re then to the next designated candidate (that is, the next numbered choice).
PR replaced a city government run by a popularly elected mayor, a city council of 15 elected in both at-large and ward districts, and a school committee of seven.
Samp, a long-time Cambridge resident, says the implementation of PR was an attempt to reform what was widely perceived as a corrupt city government.
"Many people felt that the local government was corrupt...and they wanted to get rid of it. They elected Plan E...to improve the honesty and efficiency of city government," he said.
Although other American cities have attempted this form of government, Cambridge alone has retained it.
The system, influenced by the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, was developed in Europe during the 19th century through the philosophy of John Stuart Mill and used in Cincinatti, Ohio, during the 1950s.
It was also used in Worcester, Medford, Lowell and Newburyport, Mass. until being voted down under the "Home Rule" amendment, according to a report distributed by the Election Commission.
Some semblance of PR still exists in New York City for the election of district school boards. It is also used in the Republic of Ireland to elect the National Parliament, according to Shepsle.
As soon as polls close Tuesday night, ballot boxes are sealed and brought to the Longfellow School for counting, according to the Election Commission.
Eleven counting stations are set up representing each of the city's 11 wards. The vote of each candidate is sorted and separated by precinct. By tomorrow evening, an "Unofficial First Count" tallying the number one votes for each candidate will be posted.
The second day commences the "Official First Count," a society event by Cambridge standards, according to Shepsle.
"It's such a social event -- people go down to City Hall just to watch the votes being counted by hand," he says.
Spectators may lean against a railing to watch as Election Commissioners inspect and stamp each ballot by first choices and by precinct. The entire process is usually completed and published by Friday afternoon. Tallies are broken down by individual candidates and by precinct.
Those who "meet quota," are declared elected, and their surplus votes are redistributed to the voter's next choice. Beginning Saturday morning, candidates with less than 50 votes are eliminated from the field and their ballots redistributed. The process continues until all nine city council seats are filled. Counting proceeds despite the Veteran's Day Holiday and may conclude as late as the Monday or Tuesday following the election.
Samp says he heartily endorses the PR system "although the counting is complicated and a lot of people don't understand [it]," saying PR reduces mudslinging and focuses candidates upon the issues.
"You don't dare attack your opponent in hopes of getting a number two vote from your opponent's supporters," Samp says.
And if death or scandal ever beset the City Council, PR is there with a ready solution.
"If anyone dies or anything scandalous happens before the next election, we could count their ballots and see who the successor should be. That's why we keep them in storage in the election safe," Samp said.
In fact, City Councillor Anthony D. Gallucio was appointed to the council last spring using just this system following the removal of former Councillor William H. Walsh because of a felony conviction.
Although PR has several advantages in securing minority representation and filling vacant council seats, Shepsle points out that PR can overwhelm voters.
"It's complicated," he says. "Voters are called upon to possess a lot of information on the candidates and to rank them."
"It's basically a trade-off between governance and representation," Shepsle adds. "It [PR] accurately reflects the complexity of the city, but governance may be difficult since there are a variety of opinions and points of view.
Most voters and experts agree that PR is one Cambridge tradition that is likely to continue.
State legislation passed in 1949 allows Cambridge voters to participate in a referendum on their system every four years, Samp says. Five such elections have been defeated--the last one by over 2,500 votes, he says.
But a lawsuit filed by council candidate James I. McSweeney asks the Massachusetts Supreme Court to abolish PR voting, although he hopes to gam election under the system in Tuesday's elections.
McSweeney says he objects to the process which distributes votes among remaining candidates after others have met their quota. Although McSweeney finished in tenth place in his 1993 council bid, he was not appointed to fill the vacancy created by Walsh's removal from the council because more transfer votes went to Galluccio during the recount.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case sometime in December, he says.