Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

August 21, 2009

Open Forum – Proportional Representation

Filed under: Cambridge government — Robert Winters @ 6:41 pm

When Cambridge adopted the Plan E Charter in 1940, it included the use of proportional representation as the method of election for City Council and School Committee. This election method is designed to ensure majority rule while at the same time guaranteeing minority representation. At its inception, the concept was the representation of political minorities, but this has naturally extended to include ethnic minorities and other constituencies as defined by the voters.

Proportional representation is much more general than the specific method used in Cambridge. Most democracies throughout the world use some form of proportional representation, primarily in parliamentary systems of government.

The origins of the PR method used in Cambridge, the single transferable vote (STV), date back to 1821, but the method is often associated with Thomas Hare who promoted the method during the mid-19th century. The “Hare System” was popularized by John Stuart Mill and, with some modification after the ideas of Henry Richmond Droop, this system is essentially what is used in Cambridge today. Basically, every 10+% of voters who can galvanize around an issue or other definable quality among candidates will likely elect a representative on the City Council. For the School Committee, it takes slightly more than one-seventh of voters to earn a seat.

The topic of this Open Forum is the concept of proportional representation, not the mechanics of the PR elections. We’ll save the mechanics for the next topic.

Specific questions:
1. How important is proportional representation of a range of viewpoints and backgrounds on the City Council and School Committee today? Is this true in practice as well as in theory? How does representation in Cambridge compare to other cities, the state legislature, or the U.S. Congress?

2. How would things differ if we elected councillors and school committee members by wards using winner-take-all plurality elections (and possibly gerrymandered districts)?

3. Has the use of candidate slates been effective over the years in our PR elections? Have some constituencies benefited more from PR than others?


  1. A few general comments:

    I think that from a voter’s point of view this is an especially good system since by expressing your preferences your vote is going to count towards electing someone you want. A significant attribute is that the voter need not worry about wasting a vote on a candidate that probably doesn’t have a chance of winning and thus help someone you don’t want. Of course such a system is even more valuable for single offices. Think of how Capuano won his first primary in 1988 with 23% of the votes which meant that 77% of the voters wanted someone else – perhaps if this had been a STV election he would have won but no matter what it would have been a much better measure of voter preference. Thus in that case a small amount of people – especially small since it was a primary – got to select the Representative for the district probably for as long as he wishes to serve. We haven’t had anything this dramatic in our municipal elections but the preference system certainly is a better reflection of voter intent. In the 2007 election the 9 candidates who had the most 1st place votes were the people who were elected so it is possible if we had a vote-for-one candidate system we would have gotten the same council. That has not been true always – for example in 2003 Matt DeBergalis had the 8th most amount of first place votes but didn’t win after the vote distribution.

    Voters don’t need to obsess or really understand any of the details of how vote counting works. I took a quick look at the Election Commission web site and it demonstrates too much detail of the mechanism with explanations of quota and how to mark the ballot without emphasizing the simplicity of it from the voter point of view. I think there is a lot more that could be done by the Election Commission and the press and other methods of communication to make the system seem less unfathomable.

    I think one of the biggest downsides of this system is that since candidates are competing for the same first place votes it tends to make candidates who appear most similar not work with each other when elected and are often pitted against each other. Note how Marjorie Decker had the most amount of 2nd place votes (26.5%) on Henrietta Davis’ first place ballots in the 2007 election and Henrietta had the most amount (23.5%) on Marjorie’s ballots. I think it is rare that these two are seen really working with each other to achieve some goal even though it is clear that the electorate thinks that they are very similar – perhaps because of superficial reasons like the fact that they are both white women but still…

    I think we have a serious problem in voter apathy. Your web site shows that 13,633 people voted in 2007; in the 80’s it was in the 20’s and the 50’s it was in the 30’s. What is it going to be this year – 11,000? My database which might differ from yours shows 59,142 registered voters 41,253 of them who are active as of the end of June. It shows that 44,525 of the registered voters voted last November and 27,698 voted in the 06 election. What are the causes of this extreme apathy? I suppose the electoral system has something to do with it but I doubt if that is the real cause. I think that the real causes are mostly all due to a communication gap with many aspects. There is essentially no coverage of Cambridge politics in the Press or TV other than a tiny little bit in the Cambridge Chronicle. How do people find out what this government actually does? I doubt if many people watch City Council meetings on TV since they are long and tedious and if you don’t get cable TV you can’t see it anyway (perhaps Verizon carries it). The Cambridge Civic Journal covers much more than the Chronicle and the Chronicle circulation is small anyway. Back in the days when there were serious slates by the Cambridge Civic Association and other organizations there was more political coverage by these organizations but they were limited also – I think the League of Women’s Voters used to provide election information. Now people just get a lot of junk mail from the candidates at election time. The elected people do communicate to their identified supporters/donors and occasionally to a wider list of people (e.g. the Mayor has an extensive NewsLetter). Even the official record of City Council meetings on the City web site doesn’t report who voted Yea or Nay or who abstained – it just gives the final score.

    Do people not vote because they don’t care, don’t understand the system, don’t know who is who, or think that it doesn’t matter who wins anyway?

    Comment by John W Gintell — August 22, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

  2. John correctly points out that from a voter’s point of view our PR system often guarantees that your vote will count toward the election of someone of your choosing. However, the more significant benefit is in the likelihood that if there is any significant constituency for whom something matters enough to affect the way they express their preferences on the ballot, that constituency will likely get representation. This requires no contrived districts gerrymandered to elect a representative. The constituency doesn’t even have to be geographically concentrated.

    It’s worth noting that proportional representation is only as true as the voters’ emphasis on particular issues or qualities of the candidates. During the rent control era when the majority of voters were tenants and rent control was THE defining issue, it was basically assured that the majority of the elected city councillors would be in favor of rent control. Now it’s a non-issue and the councillors are elected based on very different criteria.

    With Black voters compromising between 10 and 20% of the Cambridge population and voting to some degree along racial lines, we can usually expect to see a proportionate share of elected Black city councillors (one or two). However, candidates have qualities other than their race, and voters often use criteria other than racial identity in expressing their preferences. For example, sexual preference most likely has played a role in the current composition of the City Council with two councillors who are both Black and gay.

    While the electorate is approximately 50% women, only 3 of the 9 councillors are women and there were NO women councillors during the PR era from 1941 through 1955. This may have been due to the lack of women candidates, but it could also be attributable to different priorities among voters.

    In terms of geography, 5 of the 9 current councillors live in the 02139 zip code, but only 1 of 9 live in the 02138 zip code. (In years past, most of them lived in the 02138 zip code.) It would seem that geography is not currently a major criterion for voters, but it clearly matters for supporters of Tim Toomey (02141). Furthermore, North Cambridge (02140) is a highly targeted area of the city that often hosts numerous campaign headquarters along North Mass. Ave.

    There have been some recent votes of the City Council that were unanimous or nearly unanimous, e.g. the vote condemning the use of security cameras supplied by the federal government in public areas. It seems apparent that the electorate is far more divided on this issue than were their representatives, so their point of view was almost certainly NOT proportionally represented on this (relative minor) issue.

    The real question then is: What issues or qualities are so important among voters that they warrant proportional representation on the City Council and School Committee? The system tends to represent such interests reasonably well, but only when it really matters to the electorate.

    Comment by Robert Winters — August 26, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  3. Hey everyone,

    Sorry I posted late to this my internet access in Chicago has been shakey at best and I’ve been devoting most of my comments to the much more interesting Senate special election.

    In any case I oppose PR for the following reasons:

    1) It is unconstitutional

    I know that PR has survived countless court challenges at the state level but it still violates the ‘one man one vote’ principle that our American democracy was built upon. To me it violates the spirit of electoral democracy and representation by taking away an individuals vote for another candidates, that special candidate voter bond and relationship, and ultimately that special official constituent relationship, and instead spread it out amongst 9 choices in an incredibly confusing manner. Councilors are unsure who their core supporters are and instead this creates the very kind of interest group politics we want to avoid. Racial and sexual orientation politics start to matter more than the issues. National politics come into play. I would argue that the whole disfunction of our local political system starts at the source with PR because it creates a narrow constituency, it creates a council that has no incentive to think broadly about the city or govern locally with their neighborhoods, and it creates a council that has no interest in banding together. The idea of voting for slates is also inherently un-republican and voting down a ‘party line’ goes against the Roman inspired concept of a citizen legislator that this country was based on. I am sure the founding fathers would not approve of this method, in fact I know they wouldn’t since they voted against it during the Constitutional Convention. One Man one vote. It is the most ancient and pure principle in Anglo-American democracy and I wholeheartedly support first past the post since it encourages a candidate to bring together a broad coalition for plurality government rather than appealing to special interests and divisions. While IRV for a single position can make sense, PR for an entire at large council is a disaster for those reasons.

    2) Requires High Voter Education

    I am incredibly confident that the majority of voters are confused and unsure of how a PR election works and where there vote ends up going. This to me is the biggest factor against PR. It might make liberal elites and process oriented progressives happy but it disenfranchises the casual voter, especially those without college educations, by creating an overly complex system that is difficult to understand. I think most voters tune out of local politics in Cambridge because our ‘unique’ electoral system is so complex and difficult to understand. It partly explains the poor turnout, especially among youth who have in fact turned out in greater numbers for state and national elections. I have no friends in my 06 high school class who have voted in local elections, I have been told my election workers that I am the only individual in Cambridge in my age cohort (18-24) who has consistently requested absentee ballots for local elections. This system is allowing for gradual civic decay and it could be irreversible. The complexity makes filling out an improper ballot incredibly easy, many people do not fill out all their choices limiting the power of their vote and making their votes ‘less equal’ than others.

    One could argue that increasing local civic education and actually teaching our voters how to vote in this election would be a smart idea but it is one the city council, always defending the status quo that keeps them in power, has rejected time and time again. Very few school committee members headed my plea for greater civic education. Few of them even understood how they were even elected and were confused by the recount process that swept one of them into power. Such a system is highly undemocratic if the majority of people do not understand how to vote.

    One man one vote is great because it is simple, it is a great equalizer that people of all ages, races, religions, creeds, and education and socioeconomic levels can understand.

    3) Preserves Narrow Ideological/Racial Interests instead of the greater good of the city,

    Each councilor, instead of appealing to the entire city for votes, just has to get slightly more than 10% of the city to support them which leads to complete bafoons like Majorie Decker and Ken Reeves getting elected since all the 20% of blacks will back Reeves and Simmons no matter what, the 10% of far leftist 9/11 conspiracy nutjobs who believe that the Peace Commission can stop the Iraq War will elect Decker, the 10% of old people who want to protect their property rights will vote in Galluccio/Maher. The 10% of people in North Cambridge and the Agassiz neighborhood will elect Craig Kelley. And so forth. It divides the city, it means that councilors pass overly symbolic resolutions to appeal to their narrow bloc of supporters, it means that councilors, at least those without higher ambitions, do the bare minimum necessary to retain their base of support. No one seeks to expand it. It also creates a culture whereby these councilors feel entitled to their jobs, salaries, and perks because the electorate is so out of touch and their own narrow base of supporters will enable this small time corruption over and over. Because we have created a technocratic government under the Plan E charter as well as a confusing and undemocratic system with how the election works, only the elite and the politically connected are engaged in politics and the people continually lose.

    4) Subverts neighborhood representation-a pillar of local democracy

    This has less to do with PR although PR is a factor that hurts it, but neighborhoods have lost influence because PR tends to favor blocs of voters affiliated by race, sexual orientation, ideology, or interests instead of the typical first past the post method of affiliating them by geography. Thus some neighborhoods will be overly represented, some less represented, some will not be represented at all. And we have seen the consequences of this. Until Craig Kelley showed up North Cambridge had no city councilor from the 02140 neighborhood for about a decade. In that decade Bob Healy with the rest of the council made NC a dumping ground for new development, affordable housing, and zoning changes. The creation of the once vibrant commercial corridor of Mass Ave between Porter Square and the Arlington line into a ‘condo alley’ can be laid entirely at the feet of the complicit and complacent council and manager.

    Creating a divided council with some at-large and the rest within wards will ensure that every neighborhood has at least one representative in their local government fighting for them. Also the at-large candidates, under a normal democratic system, will have to appeal to large swaths of the city and thus will be more able to be mayors, the mayor could be, like in the Worcester system, selected from that pool in another election occuring right after the city council race. A better election system will breed better legislators every time that are far more representative of their neighborhoods and/or the city as a whole than the current system.

    5) Subverts ideological diversity

    PR was supposed to create political diversity yet the city council and school committee are still dominated by the local democratic party. I would argue that it would be easier for other political voices to coalesce around one candidate and elect him or her if they could all pool their votes for one candidate instead of spreading them out across a slate. The Libertarians fielded a slate in the 05 race and got slaughtered since their vote was divided three ways and wasted while the Democratic candidates were the main focus of most support. Republicans, libertarians, greens, and independents would do much better in an election where slates and vote transfers were not a factor but instead these lesser parties could fight the Democratic dominance by pooling their resources behind one candidate. In a new Cambridge that also had some ward representation those elections would be easier to win and an alternative candidate could either find a neighborhood suitable to their ideology (West Cambridge seems like fertile ground for center-right candidates, Cambridgeport for left of center candidates) or simply bombard one neighborhood and run a strong campaign by door knocking on every door. A Republican invasion of a ward could result in a Republican councilor.

    6) Decreases minority representation

    Under PR the minority vote will tend to produce only one or two candidates, much like a major flaw in majority-minority districting at the Congressional level, this bundles minority candidates into one specific area of the electorate when they might arguably have a better shot fielding more candidates across boundaries. In a first past the post Cambridge with some ward representation, I suspect we will see more minority candidates since certain neighborhoods tend to have more minorities than others, some in a bloc, and also see some minority candidates create a more compelling cross appealing profile, like Barack Obama did nationally, and run for the at-large positions. Reeves, Simmons, and Harding were all niche politicians appealing to a very narrow base of almost solely African American support and thus their politics tended to be more insulated for that very reason. Harding especially was almost exclusively focused on advancing a self proclaimed ‘black agenda’ on the school committee and people lamented his loss since the ‘black voice’ was no longer on the School Committee. I think forcing minority candidates to cover more ground will actually improve their chances of election and we will see a more diverse elected body without PR than we do with it. It will also allow for ideological diversity within minoriy communities. Elridge King and Andre Green were both compelling black Republican candidates who were unable to gain traction because black voters, understanding that their 10-20% nets them only two seats under PR, were more prone to support the incumbents, even if they disagreed with them ideologically. Under a new system (incidentally one proposed by Andre Green and other Cambridge Republicans) with a mixture of wards and at large seats and no PR we would potentially see a more ideologically diverse group of minority city councilors since incumbent minority politicians will not hold a monopoly on their groups vote.

    6) Recounts/vacancies are horrible under PR

    Recounts and vacancies are incredibly difficult and intrinsically unfair under PR. First off, in the event of a vacancy, instead of calling for a special election to fill the seats that are lost, the vacating candidates votes are simply re-distributed to other candidates until a replacement emerges. This creates a system, which Robert has documented, where one vacating candidate’s votes could be reallocated to another candidate electing them, while if a different candidate was vacated his/her votes would be transferred differently electing an entirely different candidate. Same recount, two different outcomes depending on the candidate choosen.

    Similarly the electorate of Cambridge has shifted since the last election leading to several problems. Some voters might no longer be in Cambridge or alive, so our new councilor could be elected by deceased voters (violating at least one Supreme Court precedent), voters that no longer live in Cambridge (violating another) and similarly other voters no longer qualified to vote in this election. Another problem is that Joe Voter might have changed his mind since the last election, the candidates he voted for might have done something he didn’t like, instead of allowing his new representative to be choosen based on current issues and the incumbents record instead he is forced to ‘vote again’ for candidates he might no like. In the event of a criminal charge or scandal coming to light after an election a voter could be voting for a candidate they no longer like for whatever reason. It is undemocratic to use the same ballots from the last election to fill a vacancy when a new election allows everyone currently living in Cambridge another opportunity to choose their representative using the conditions and issues of the present day. It is hard to imagine disenfranchisement occuring across space/time boundaries but by golly Cambridge is so special and unique it actually can happen here! I am surprised our scientific neighbors at MIT have not commissioned a field team to study this phenomona.

    Similarly during a regular election a recount is incredibly difficult since the order in which the votes are counted and the manner in which they are counted can produce different outcomes in the recount election. Again this is essentially assigning the will of the voters to random chance.

    William F. Buckley once said choosing 435 names at random from the Boston phonebook would produce a better Congress than a democratic election, I think as long as we are using PR that same idiom applies to Cambridge and its elected bodies.

    Comment by James Conway — September 17, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

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