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.
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?