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Vote Counting: A Grand Spectacle

By Yin Y. Nawaday

For many in Cambridge, tabulating the results of municipal elections is as much of a spectacle as the campaign itself.

In the gymnasium of the Longfellow Elementary School yesterday, observers, election officials, candidates, supporters and on-lookers milled about, shaking hands, slapping backs and whispering confidentially, as approximately 100 counters ate cookies from a Parent-Teachers Association bake sale and leisurely tabulated the first-place votes from Tuesday's election.

The bi-annual event is not exactly efficient, but has won the hearts of many locals.

"It's a great social occasion. It's the greatest show in Cambridge," said Edward J. Samp, who has sat for 30 years on the city's elections commission.

"Proportional representation could be computerized as bizarre as it is--but you couldn't get even 10 percent of the people in here to agree to part with this community culture," added Alan Gerber, an MIT graduate student and first-time onlooker.

40 Years of PR

In Cambridge, figuring out who won the election takes six days. Yesterday was the first.

The city has run its elections this way for 40 years--when the current proportional representation system was first introduced.

Under the Hare proportional representation system, voters rank the candidates. Candidates are elected if they meet a quota of votes, and their excess votes are transferred to the next-ranked candidate. Low candidates' votes are also redistributed in later rounds.

Proportional representation, first instituted to curb corruption in local government, allows minorities a stronger voice in city affairs.

Yesterday's vote tabulated the first-place votes, and was meant to serve as an unofficial tally of the final. Candidates will jockey for the top nine spots as votes are redistributed and officially counted in later days.

"You'll have a fairly good idea of who's going to be elected and who's going to be fighting at the end after today," said an observer for council candidate Walter J. Sullivan. The observer was one of many "watchers" who stay at Longfellow to keep a close eye on the process for their candidate.

But half the point behind this ritual is that it's not just about who wins the election. Many on-lookers come to watch the event as if it were a football game or musical.

"Anyone could see that it's much more than counting ballots. It's obviously a very compelling community ritual," said Gerber.

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