City’s Vote Counting Draws Criticism

Recount procedures outdated

Nathaniel E. Jedrey

Sign at the office of the Election Commission

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.

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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.