School Committee Recount Continues

Joyce Varughese

City officials continue their recount of ballots in the disputed Cambridge School Committee election. No date has been set for the release of the final results.

More than a week after a recount of the Cambridge School Committee election began, there is still no end in sight. There are no chads or butterfly ballots, but the computerization of Cambridge’s proportional representation (PR) system presents its own set of problems for election officials to handle.

“It was very labor-intensive and laborious to do this,” said Wayne A. “Rusty” Drugan, the chair of the election commission.

After seven votes separated three of the School Committee candidates in the official count released Nov. 7, candidates Susana Segat, Nancy Walser and Richard Harding Jr. sued for a recount.

On Nov. 14, the Election Commission certified the petitions for the recount and began developing a procedure for the first PR recount since Cambridge computerized its voting system in 1997. The recount process began Nov. 26, and has called into question the efficiency of the Cambridge vote counting system.

Drugan said he didn’t know when a final result would be reached, given that there are 17,000 ballots that must be individually checked.

There is no law mandating a deadline by which the recount must be completed.

Dozens of officials and observers have taken up the third floor of Cambridge Police Headquarters with manila envelopes of ballots for each candidate in each precinct, and a plastic bin for discarded ballots.

Officials sat at tables and held ballots up to determine their votes, as official observers for the three candidates stood behind a rope barrier and looked on.

If a ballot was determined to have a vote for the candidate for whom it was originally counted, the ballot went into a manila envelope with the candidate’s name on it. Otherwise, it went into a gray plastic bin to be included later in the correct envelope.

Election Commissioner Artis B. Spears, who said three weeks ago that the recount process would be finished by Nov. 30, laughed when asked Monday when she expected the recount to be finished.

“We’re all laughing,” said Stephen H. Owades, a computer consultant and voting software expert working on the recount.

The computerized system is a large cause of the prolonged recount process, because the order in which the computer counted the ballots must be reconstructed in order to do a hand count. Ballots must be ordered as to replicate the sequence in which they were originally counted to preserve the accuracy of the results.

“The method Cambridge uses for counting its votes was designed for hand counts, and it clearly doesn’t make sense on a computer,” said John Pitkin, a local activist and former candidate for City Council.

Pitkin is concerned that inefficiency in the recount will be blamed on Cambridge’s PR system.

“I don’t think this lengthy recount really inspires confidence in Cambridge’s elections system,” Pitkin said. “This is not intrinsic to proportional representation.”

Pitkin proposes a system of counting PR votes in which the order of the ballots would not not affect the result.