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Riding the Trolley Car Of Proportional Voting

By Christopher B. Daly

Students who have broken with a long Harvard tradition this fall by getting interested in upcoming municipal elections in Cambridge may be disappointed to learn that in Cambridge no one can be sure of who has won a seat on the city council or the school committee until almost a week after the election is over. The reason for the delay is nothing so common or devious as wrangling over graveyard votes; it just takes a week to count the votes under the complex Proportional Representation system that Cambridge still uses to elect local officials.

Proportional Representation is something like a trolley car of American politics--a vestige of an earlier day. Designed to maximize the impact of minority groups on the outcome of the elections, the system of Proportional Representation was a weapon in the arsenal of urban political reformers in the early decades of this century. Although some 25 cities used the system in 1900, almost all of them except Cambridge have since abandoned it, apparently because it was too effective in electing uppity minorities.

The system, designed as an elegant compromise between majority rule and minority representation, works like this: Cambridge voters will find in the booths on November 4 two long ballots listing the names of all candidates for city council and school committee. Instead of making the traditional "X," voters will be asked to rank the candidates (1,2,3,etc.) according to their preference.

Then the "first count" begins. Ballots are assigned to candidates only where the voters have indicated a number-one preference. All those ballots which for various reasons did not indicate any clear preferences are thrown out of consideration. The valid vote is then counted to determine the minimum number of votes a candidate will need for election. (For election to the council a candidate needs one tenth of the vote plus one, since there are nine council seats; for the school committee, a candidate needs one sixth of the vote plus one.)

At this stage, all the ballots must be verified by two Cambridge Election Commission workers to make sure that they have in fact been assigned to the proper candidate. And with 60 to 80 people counting ballots by hand, there is plenty of room even for honest mistakes.

At that point, the vote counters go back over the ballots and randomly remove all the "extra" votes from the candidates who exceeded the quota and gained election on the first round. These "extra" votes are then redistributed to the candidates marked "2" on those ballots. If nine winners don't emerge during that count, the counters go back and start using "3"s (and so on up to "9"s) until nine candidates have met the quota. That way, in theory at least, no one's vote is "wasted," and minorities do not have to throw all their weight behind only one candidate to get someone on the council.

Finally, of course, the whole process has to be repeated for the school committee vote. CANDIDATES FOR SCHOOL COMMITTEE BERMAN, Sara Mae  +GESELL, Peter G. 23 Fayette Street  62 Hubbard Avenue BUCKLEY, Stephen D.  HOLWAY, David J. 147 Prospect Street  52 Park Avenue CATAVOLO, George  +KOOCHER, Glenn S. 202 Elm Street  114 Trowbridge Street CENTANNI, Ralph T.  +MAYNARD, Joseph E. 60 Sixth Street  214 Harvard Street ELLIS, Priscilla  +PIERCE, Charles M. 24 Francis Avenue  85 Chilton Street FANTINI, Donald A.  RAVANIS, Theodore D. 15 Day Street  35 Lopez Street +FITZGERALD, James  SHUMAN, Charles H., Jr. 137 Otis Street  124 Webster Avenue GATELY, Paul M.  +WOLF, Alice K. 205 Rindge Avenue  48 Huron Avenue +INCUMBENT

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