In a back room of the Central Square police station, weary city officials sorted through piles of paper.
It was 5:40 a.m., but the clock had been taken off the wall hours earlier in a vain event to stop time.
This was the last day of an election recount that had taken a month to complete. The day before, Saturday, Dec. 8, the five members of the Cambridge Election Commission had started work and were determined to finish that day.
Working marathon hours, they toiled into the wee hours of the next morning—despite an obscure Cambridge ordinance that dictates ballots cannot be counted on Sundays.
The recount had been brought about by a photo-finish race for school committee in which three candidates competing for the last two slots were separated by only seven ballots.
When all was said and done, the same six candidates won seats on the school committee.
But it was pure luck the same candidates were elected the second time around, according to two individuals who worked on the recount last fall and have advised the election commission over many years.
The city’s rules for counting ballots leave so much to chance, the election commission was “fortunate” the results did not change, said George I. Goverman, an auditor who reviewed the recount procedure earlier this month.
“It was a worst-case scenario,” said Cambridge political commentator Robert Winters, who has advised the election commission in the past.
A New Roll of the Dice
The recount took a full month and cost the city more than $38,000.
But for all the time and expense, a consensus of local experts involved with the Cambridge voting system say that, under current procedures, the very same ballots could have resulted in different candidates being elected to the school committee.
Critics say the current system encourages losing candidates to ask for costly and time-consuming recounts.
Although recounts are designed to produce a more accurate result, in Cambridge the results can change purely due to chance, critics say.
“It has this incentive built into it for losing candidates to roll the dice again,” Winters says.
This was the recount since Cambridge computerized its voting system in 1997.
When ballots had been counted manually, the initial vote counts frequently took as long as a week—so election results were not known for days.
Computerization has sped up the time frame for an initial vote count to less than 24 hours. But, as election officials found out this fall, the new system poses new problems for recounting an election.
Cambridge operates on a proportional representation system and candidates are elected to the city council and school committee based on a complicated system of vote quotas and distributions.
Voters rank candidates on the ballot in order of their preferences. When votes are counted, some candidates reach the “quota” needed for election just from ballots where they were ranked number one. Once a candidate has reached quota, any extra votes for that candidate are “distributed” to the next-choice candidates on those ballots.
But not all of these extra ballots are distributed. Instead, for example, every fourth ballot is counted and the rest are skipped for the time being. This interval is different for each so-called “round” of distributions, and the rounds continue until all the offices are filled.
What makes the system so precarious is that it depends on the order in which the ballots are counted. And that order is determined—partly by pure chance—by a two-part procedure.
First, two weeks before the election, the city’s 42 precincts are put in order by randomly drawing them from a hat. Then, on election day, the order of ballots within each precinct is the order in which they are processed by election officials—with a small randomization procedure added in electronically at the precincts.
Critics say this procedure essentially leaves Cambridge elections up to chance.
Usually this chance factor is not large enough to affect the results, they say. But in close elections, tiny modifications to the ballot order can entirely change the election.
The 2001 school committee election was one election where such a small change could have made a big difference.
Winters and Stephen I. Owades, who helped run the recount, each conducted computer simulations of the school committee election in which slight ordering changes would have resulted in different candidates making it onto the school committee.
Even changing one ballot—moving the first ballot to the last position—would have altered the counting order and produced a different outcome.
Goverman, the auditor, seconded their objections in his report to the election commission.
“The Commission and the City are fortunate, insofar as preventing excessive demands for manual recounts, that the results remained the same,” he wrote.
Indeed, the ballot order did change in the recount as officials found some ballots that had previously been considered invalid. Some voters had tried to erase or reorder votes and others had listed numbers instead of filling in the bubbles on the ballots.
Electronic scanners could not read those ballots and so they were not included in the initial count. But later during the recount, election officials used human counters to examine the ballots and determine the voters’ intent.
Adding these ballots to the pile meant a different order and a different outcome.
In the end, the same six candidates ended up on the school committee as those declared in the initial count, but they ended up coming in different places out of the field of candidates. The second time around, committee member Alfred B. Fantini came in number one out of all the candidates—where in the initial count he had been lower in the final rankings.
This long process of recreating the initial order in which ballots had been counted on election day took more than 2,000 hours of work by 22 counters hired just for that purpose.
Election commissioner Wayne A. “Rusty” Drugan said the recount’s expensive price tag was “inevitable,” due to the number of staffers and the amount of time necessary for such a labor-intensive process.
“That’s the nature of the beast when it has to be a manual count of 20,000 ballots,” Drugan said.
A System All Its Own
While election commissioners say there is some prospect of minor tinkering with the system, they say no major overhaul is planned.
The origins of the Cambridge system date to 1938 and to a now-repealed state law. Any major modifications would require state legislative approval, and Cambridge officials say they have no plans to pursue legislative action.
In fact, Cambridge officials have had no communication with either the secretary of state’s office or the state legislature.
“We haven’t done anything since then,” said Teresa S. Neighbor, executive director of the election commission.
A spokesperson for Secretary of State William F. Galvin said he had heard of no criticisms of Cambridge’s voting system.
Cambridge’s proportional representation (PR) is part of the “Plan E” charter that sets out the city government. Plan E is one of five possible town charter systems that the state legislature established in the late ’30s. The law requires that whatever voting system Plan E cities follow was in use in 1938, the year the state enacted the legislation.
Other Plan E cities such as Lowell, Worcester, and Medford have since gotten rid of the PR aspect of the charter—leaving Cambridge as the only city in America with PR.
In 1972, the state legislature repealed the law that allowed Plan E cities to use PR. But after legal wrangling that went all the way to the Supreme Judicial Court, Cambridge prevailed and continues to use PR to this day.
Even though they defend the PR system, critics of this fall’s recount say better technology, especially personal computers, exists now that would allow vote-counting procedures that humans alone could not have done in 1938.
When the election commission held a public hearing earlier this month on the recount, Owades and others submitted recommendations for modernizing the vote counting system.
In particular they suggested using a procedure called fractional transfer, which would eliminate the role of chance in how ballots are distributed.
Rather than pluck out selected ballots and counting them entirely, fractional transfer would take all extra ballots but weight them as if each one was just a fraction of a vote. For example, instead of counting every 4th ballot, all of the ballots would be counted with a weight of one-fourth.
That method would “take the randomness of the order out,” said school committee member Richard Harding Jr., one of the candidates to contest the November election and prevail in the recount.
If Cambridge election officials ever look to change the current system, they should push for the more radical measure of fractional representation.
“Why don’t you go the whole hog and get it so you don’t need to use the ordering,” Drugan said.
The commission is unlikely to pursue any major changes because of the long political and legal process of getting the state to amend the law that governs Cambridge elections, a provision known as 54A.
“The legal hurdles to changing 54A are would be very difficult,” Drugan said. “It would require wide-spread public support which would be difficult to marshal.”
Winters speculated that the commission would eventually make some reforms, but expressed strong concern that only superficial changes would be made.
“I’m concerned that they will make one or two changes and say, ‘See, see we fixed it,’” he says.
—Lauren R. Dorgan contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Stephanie M. Skier can be reached at email@example.com.