Politically engaged Harvard students have been slinging theories about the presidential election left and right since November 2, and they seem reasonably well-informed as to what happened hundreds of miles away in Cleveland, Ohio and Broward County, Florida. But ask undergraduate political pundits to comment on Alice Wolf’s victory in Harvard’s congressional district or James DiPaola’s election as county sheriff, and they’re likely to give you a stare as blank as the Green Party ticket on a swing state ballot—and it’s not entirely their fault. While it would be nice to see Harvard students more actively involved in the political life of their home for four years, Cambridge’s current election system doesn’t give Crimson undergrads much incentive to declare citizenship in the city and participate in local elections, much less care about the outcomes. Students’ best chance to democratically improve the quality of their lives here—after Undergraduate Council (UC) elections—lies with the City Council and its legislative power.
Cambridge’s city councilors, however, are elected using an oddball system called Proportional Representation. Under this plan, councilors do not represent specific areas in the city. Instead, all candidates are pitted against each other on a citywide ballot. Rather than casting a single vote, Cambridge voters rank their top nine choices, and a candidate wins a seat on the council when he or she receives “quota,” defined as one-tenth of the votes cast plus one extra vote. The system is problematic because it allowed the defeat this spring of MIT alum and students’ rights activist Matt S. DeBergalis—despite the fact that he received more first-place votes than two of the re-elected incumbents.
Cambridge’s mind-boggling quotas stand in sharp contrast with the more straightforward elections system in place in New Haven, Conn., which is comparable to Cambridge in population and in the presence of elite higher education. The city is divided into thirty wards, each of which elects a representative to sit on the city council. More importantly, the way in which the wards are drawn virtually guarantees Yale students a voice in the operation of their city government, since the university’s residence halls and off-campus graduate students pack several wards. As a result, elected Yale students have been able to advocate powerfully and effectively for the city’s student population on such recent controversial issues as a proposed ban on twenty four-hour stores and the redevelopment of the city’s downtown.
Switching to a direct representation system in Cambridge would give students a more active role in city government. And it would give a Harvard undergraduate a realistic chance of being elected in the first place. For now, a Harvard student on a citywide ballot would face the near-impossible task of garnering support from outlying neighborhoods.
Were one to be elected in the near future, an undergraduate councilor from Harvard wouldn’t have to look hard for issues to address. Even given the added impetus of a series of sexual assaults over the past year, the city government has been excruciatingly slow in making safety on the Cambridge Common a priority. While poor lighting and a lack of emergency callboxes make a walk through the park unnecessarily dangerous, not even the rash of gropings over the past year could convince Cambridge to shell out the cash for security upgrades. The UC maintains an official liaison to the City of Cambridge, but the sluggish pace of the negotiations only underlines the need for a directly-elected Harvard affiliate with governmental power. A year after the first in a string of sexual assaults, Harvard finally agreed to provide funds for three callboxes on the Common—money the city seems to have accepted grudgingly. (Cambridge’s historical commission expressed concern about the effect of the callboxes on the aesthetic quality of the Common. As the UC’s meeting minutes from February 26 derisively note, the commission wanted the callboxes to “look like trees.”) An elected undergraduate could still expect tough debates over issues that will affect students now and in the future, from a push for more late-night eateries to the questions of rent control and affordable housing. However, this undergraduate councillor, unlike the UC, would have the vote and inside debating power to expedite matters.
Cambridge doesn’t necessarily owe automatic representation to its student population. But in all fairness, the city could not enjoy the relative prosperity it has without the presence of Harvard, MIT, and Lesley University, which collectively account for 18,000 jobs in Cambridge, attract developing businesses and tourism to the area, and foster the city’s reputation as an intellectual and technology hub. The issues that are important to Harvard students, including safety, are not out of step with the concerns of other Cambridge residents. More important, satisfied student constituents in the short-term would translate into active and informed Cantabrigian citizens later on, who would contribute to the knowledge-based economy that makes this city such a desirable place to live and work.
Under the current elections system, though, Harvard students will have little luck finding a candidate to push the student agenda. So if we seem disinterested in what happened in Cambridge on November 2, consider our ignorance about local politics to be directly proportional to our lack of realistic representation.
Matt Loy ’07, a Crimson editorial comper, is an English and American Literature and Language concentrator living in Eliot House.