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Sorting Through ‘The Count’

Election staffers do their part in “The Count” last night at Cambridge Senior Center. The Count is a city tradition.
Election staffers do their part in “The Count” last night at Cambridge Senior Center. The Count is a city tradition.
By Nathan J. Heller, Crimson Staff Writer

Avid onlookers cram into the hallway of the Cambridge Senior Center to make room for ballot boxes as election staffers struggle find order—and data—in an endless stream of identical envelopes, confused poll attendants, and failing technology.

“The Count”—as it is known to dozens of local cognoscenti—organizes the results of Cambridge’s unique and abstruse voting system through an equally intricate tallying process.

At the 2003 incarnation of The Count last night, mechanics were the hard part.

Under Cambridge’s extremely rare “proportional representation” voting system, a system designed to give minority groups within the city a seat at the table of power, each voter ranks favored candidates.

When a candidate gets enough votes to reach “quota,” the threshold for election, the rest of his or her votes are transferred to the next candidate on the ballot.

In the city council race, a candidate needs just 10 percent of the electorate to fall into his column in order to be elected—meaning that in a city with about 20,000 voters, roughly 2,000 pick each city councillor.

Representatives from the first precincts begin reporting at quarter to nine, shortly after the polls close, pushing through a growing crowd of locals chatting on one end of the room. The election will determine Cambridge's new city councillors and school committee members, and many in the the crowd sport buttons endorsing favored candidates. For most, The Count is not a new experience.

“This is a junkie state, here,” says Winters, an expert on Cambridge politics who edits a website called the Cambridge Civic Journal (www.rwinters.com).

Unlike the election staffers, who bear different colored ribbons depending on their role and party affiliation, Winters dons a white “viewer” ribbon—an official distinction that once carried special status.

Years ago, he recalls, the viewers would stare down each ballot box as it arrived, their necks craning over a metal railing separating the counting staff from its audience.

But today, the railing has been replaced by a slack plastic chain looping among short poles that the crowd repeatedly knocks over, and Winters’ white ribbon means absolutely nothing, he says.

Among all the viewers, official or not, memories run high.

John Born, whose wife Kathy won a council seat a decade ago, speaks fondly of the halcyon days of hand-counting when The Count required a good chair, a lunch box and formidable patience.

He recalls waiting until Sunday to hear the results of a Tuesday election.

Today, the bonhomie of an extended vigil has transmuted into the vigor of a cocktail party. Viewers in conversation clusters speculate about the election outcome and bring each other up to date on the latest in Cambridge politics.

“Oh my God,” cries one election worker at the check-in table, stumbling over the plastic chain as she rushes at a fellow staffer who has just entered. “The missing link.”

“Hello, beautiful,” he says, spreading his arms to receive her. Together they cross the “no-no line,” as she calls the boundary between viewers and staffers, and take their places at tables.

The first poll attendant reports to the check-in desk, heaving a sealed crate and a large padded bag—sheltering his all-important Accu-Vote counting machine—onto the table.

The two election commission staffers rummage through the bag, inspecting the machine and moving down a checklist.

In this case, inspection appears to be an imperfect science.

“Key in the bag?” one staffer asks.

The poll attendant reaches into his pocket and flings the machine key across the tabletop. The staffer checks the “yes” box. She then inspects the machine’s seal, which should bear the box’s identification number. There is no seal.

“That was not sealed this morning,” the poll attendant says.

The inspection concludes and the poll attendant, dressed in a T-shirt and a loose jacket, shakes his pelvis in a victory dance and waddles to his spot at another table. Someone asks one of the check-in staffers what the counting process is.

“It’s changing as we speak,” she says.

The vote count itself comes from memory cards taken in the Accu-Vote machines and subjected to computer analysis. Today, some of the problem ballots—those with write-ins or marking errors—will be hand-checked, and the count will be finalized in a process called The Real Thing.

Though the process is straightforward in theory, it spawns a host of complications. In this year’s count, two of the memory cards ran out of space, so votes for two districts have to be re-tallied. In some cases, written records do not agree.

At 9:30 p.m. Election Commissioner Lynne F. Molnar—one of four—squeezes through the crowd and enters the counting zone. About 45 minutes later, she takes up the microphone.

The first round of results—from 31 of Cambridge’s 33 precincts—are ready. The crowd grows silent with the sound of her voice.

“Do you want me to read them?” Molnar asks.

“Yes,” the viewers cry in unison.

Molnar reads through the results as other staff members hand out still-warm photocopies of the outcome. In general, the crowd is silent.

With the announcement of the preliminary eighth-place ranking of Matt S. DeBergalis—a 26-year-old MIT graduate who ran on a platform designed to appeal primarily to students—the crowd erupts into gasps and whistles.

“How’d DeBergalis get that number?” one viewer demands of another.

Surprise spreads among the viewers.

“DeBergalis is a shocker,” someone cries, and the remark echoes through the crowded hallway.

In an atrium strewn with round lunch tables, DeBergalis’ campaign manager Geoff Schmidt—dressed in army pants, a studded belt, and a black campaign T-shirt, is pacing excitedly away from the table where three other young supporters are talking frantically into their cell phones.

Long-haired Schmidt, who says he’s had six hours of sleep in the past three days, hugs his head in excitement as his first foray into politics approaches a surprising ending.

“I’m trying not to get too excited,” he says, explaining that he will look up the average in the two districts whose results are delayed by the memory-card debacle.

Ultimately, DeBergalis does not gain a place in the council. Still, Schmidt says he thinks his candidate’s success will bring student issues to the table and to future elections.

In the counting room, councillors David P. Maher and Bryan Murphy ’86-’87 are huddled over the preliminary results printout, Maher’s voice leaping into an excited falsetto.

Winter and his fellow pundits speculate about the influence of the two outstanding districts as several viewers move toward the door, passing out of the Senior Center and into the chilly night.

—Jessica R. Rubin-Wills contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at heller@fas.harvard.edu.

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