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Cambridge’s Ranked Choice Voting System, Explained

Cambridge is one of five cities in the United States that uses a proportional ranked choice voting system for its biannual municipal elections.
Cambridge is one of five cities in the United States that uses a proportional ranked choice voting system for its biannual municipal elections. By Cory K. Gorczycki
By Muskaan Arshad, Crimson Staff Writer

When Cambridge voters head to the polls on Nov. 7, they will elect Cambridge City Council and School Committee members through an election system known as proportional ranked choice voting. Here’s how that works.

Cambridge is one of only five cities in the United States that uses a proportional ranked choice voting system — adopted by the city in 1939 — for its biannual municipal elections. Rather than just choosing one candidate to support, ranked choice voting allows voters to rank multiple candidates based on preference.

At the polls, voters will be provided with a ballot which includes a list of all candidates for each race. They can list as many candidates as they like — or even all of them — in order of preference.

Based on the number of ballots cast, the Cambridge Elections Commission calculates a “quota” of votes each candidate must meet in order to be elected. Any candidate who receives enough first-choice votes to meet the quota is immediately elected.

Any excess first-choice votes that the elected candidate receives over the quota will be transferred to the candidates that those voters ranked as second-choice on their ballots. Cambridge randomizes which excess ballots are transferred from their first-choice candidate to their second-choice candidate.

Once excess ballots have been transferred to their second-choice candidates, any candidate who meets the quota is elected. Their surplus votes are transferred to the next highest ranked candidates on those ballots who have not already met the quota.

This process repeats until no other candidates meet the quota.

At this point, any candidate who receives less than 50 first-choice votes is eliminated from the race, and their ballots go to the next highest ranked candidate.

Then, the remaining candidate with the least amount of first-choice votes is eliminated, and their ballots are similarly redistributed.

Candidates are eliminated and votes are redistributed until nine Council candidates and six School Committee candidates have been elected.

This year, 24 candidates are vying for spots on the Council, while 11 are running for School Committee.

Cambridge residents can register to vote in-person at the Election Commission Office or online on the Election Commission’s website through Oct. 28.

Voters have the option to vote early, by mail, or during election day. Early voting is open from Oct. 28 to Nov. 3 at the Cambridge Water Department, the Main Library, or the Valente Library.

The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 31. The Election Commission recommends voters mail ballots at least a week before Election Day or drop them off at an official ballot drop box.

Polls will be open on Election Day, Nov. 7, from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.

—Staff writer Muskaan Arshad can be reached at muskaan.arshad@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @MuskaanArshad or on Threads @muskarshad.

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City PoliticsCambridge City CouncilCambridgeFront Middle Feature