Cambridge Faces Return to Political Dark Ages

If Voters Axe PR, Corrupt Machines May Roar Again

PR-How It Works

Proportional Representation in Cambridge is aimed at giving minorities scattered throughout the city representation based on their collective numerical strength. Citizens can vote for as many candidates as they wish, indicating precise preference by marking 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. after the names of favorites.

All ballots are initially distributed according to first choices marked on them. When a candidate has received more first place votes than he needs for his electing quota, his surplus is redistributed according to the second choices marked on the ballots.

The candidate with the lowest number of votes is then eliminated and his ballots are redistributed according to second choices. This redistribution process is repeated as the least popular candidates are successively eliminated.

As the ballots are redistributed, where the second choice is for a candidate already elected or for one already eliminated, the third choice is automatically honored. If the third choice cannot use the ballot, it goes to the fourth, and so on.

There is no primary under PR as there would be under a city-wide plurality system.

After a decade of clean calm government, Cambridge now stirs restlessly and may soon welcome back the color and thunder of plurality election along with its usual bedfellows: controlled primaries and greedy machines. Board with the lackluster of businesslike management, and desiring "more American, majority control" voters may kill proportional representation at the citywide election next Tuesday. As one shrewd local observer notes:

"The present campaign seems only a contest of personalities--a popularity contest where every minority group can participate. Proportional representation, of course, is the main issue in this campaign. But the real issue, now and for the last 12 years, is a moot one that goes beyond PR. This is the question of local political control. The politicians are tired of lifeless, colorless, paper schemes of government. They're tired of putting a rubber stamp on a housing development plan drawn up by some federal expert. They're even tired of the non-partisan efficiency of a city manager.

"All of the pols will admit the increased honesty and efficiency of Plan E, but many long for a return to the days of machine politics. For whatever the defects of the machine, it was a swinging, humming organization. It took care of its people, and the people loved it."

But though partisan spirit may be the madness of many for the gain of the few, the political memory of the typical voter is notoriously short.

As recently as 1941 the Cambridge Police chief declared: "I've been harassed by cheap politicians every day in the week and I've had political interference in my department for years. I don't mind doing favors for people, but I do mind being asked to obstruct justice."

Overmanned Garbage Trucks

Election battles in Cambridge saw the expenditure of private as well as public funds in the old days. Between primary and election day the public payroll would suddenly boom with a legion of part-time laborers. Garbage trucks with 12-man crews were common, and innumerable street cleaners handed out campaign literature at strategic corners.

The Boston Transcript commented: "Payrolls in Cambridge show a curious increase at election time, particularly in the street department. During the week of August 5, the street department payroll was $16,100. It was gradually built up until, during the week of November 11, it had jumped to $41,500. A week later, indicating the extent to which the taxpayers money had been used for political purposes, the payrolls in the department dropped to $21,500--half that of the preceding week."

There were many abuses in the days before reform. Some Cambridge mayors who controlled municipal trucking used this power to pressure Councillors most of whom held trucking contracts with the city for snow removal or refuse collection. One mayor was known to call up a majority of the 15 Councillors before a Council session and warn them that unless they voted for a specific measure, they would lose their lucrative contracts. They generally agreed with his point of view.