Choice Voting in Cambridge

Cambridge, Massachusetts uses choice voting, also known as STV or the single transferable vote to elect its city government and school board.  This voting system is a non-winner-takes-all method of proportional representation, which allows all groups to win fair representation in proportion to their share of the population.  Cambridge holds the distinction of being the only jurisdiction in the United States that still uses a choice voting system.  Choice voting in Cambridge has survived legal challenges, most recently in 1996. The Supreme Court of Massachusetts deemed choice voting to be constitutionally valid. There have also been 5 failed referenda to repeal choice voting.

Cambridge, MA adopted choice voting in 1941, in an effort to increase African-American representation in local government.  Since its inception, the African American community of Cambridge has been able to elect representatives to both bodies in almost every election in the 1960’s and 1970’s – with between 5-10% of the total population.  

How Choice Voting Works in Cambridge
In a choice system, the voter ranks the candidates in their order of preference.  Voters simply rank candidates in order of preference, putting a "1" by their first choice, a "2" by their second choice and so on. Voters can rank as few or as many candidates as they wish, knowing that a lower choice will never count against the chances of a higher choice.

Contrary to what some critics have speculated, choice voting has not proved too complicated for voters.  In Cambridge, the elections have an average of 2% error rate.  This figure includes both incorrectly marked ballots and blank ballots where the voter may have only participated in a higher-level election.  In the future, to further reduce this error rate, Cambridge could allow error correction for the voters.

To count the votes, "winning threshold" (the minimum number of votes need to win a seat) is calculated, and used to determine winners. Votes candidates achieve above the threshold are transferred to help other candidates, and candidates with little support are eliminated, and their votes transferred to more viable candidates, ensuring that as many voters as possible have some say in who wins election.
Benefits of Choice Voting in Cambridge
The use of choice voting in Cambridge, MA has enabled minorities to better succeed in local elections by lowering the threshold for election.  Choice voting only requires that a minority population is at least 10% of the total population in order to guarantee a City Council seat or 14% for a school committee seat.  Under a typical winner-take-all system, a 51% white-majority can dominate all nine seats of the council or all six seats of the committee.  
Since 1980, when the African-American population crossed 10% of the population, the amount needed to guarantee a council representative, members of the African-American community have been consistently elected to the city council and school committee.  Also, as a result of choice voting and its promotion of coalition-building, although only 10% of the population, in recent years African-Americans have been able to hold more than one seat on each board at time.
The implementation of choice voting has also allowed women to achieve much greater representation in Cambridge than in other methods of election. Between 1997 and 2001, the City Council and School Committee had female representation between 1/3 and 2/3 of each body.

Recent Articles
October 19th 2009
A better election system
Lowell Sun

Election expert Doug Amy explains how choice voting can "inject new blood" into the elections of Lowell (MA), and give voters a greater incentive to participate.

October 16th 2009
Haven't Detroit voters spoken enough?
Livingston Daily

In Detroit, there have been three mayors in the past two years and the current one has come under scrutiny. Perhaps a system like instant runoff voting will help bring political stability to motor city.

August 21st 2009
Black candidate for Euclid school board to test new voting system
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Limited voting, a form of proportional voting, will be used in Euclid (OH), in the hopes of allowing better representation of minorities.

July 2nd 2009
Reforming Albany
New York Times

FairVote's Rob Richie responds in a letter to the editor making the case for proportional voting systems to bring substantive reform to New York's legislature.