To some, eccentric voting system offers much

By Mary Hurley
Published August 15th 2004 in The Boston Globe

Just like in the not-so-old days, election department officials tallied votes late last month by distributing paper ballots among slots in a big wooden box. A small group of intent overseers hovered nearby, munching pizza.

Pepperoni, announced Teresa Neighbor, executive director of the city's Election Commission, was the first to reach "quota," followed by artichoke and green pepper.

The pizza poll was a demonstration of how the voting system known as proportional representation works in Cambridge. In yet another example of the uniqueness of this left-bank republic, Cambridge is the only municipality in the country that uses this method to elect the City Council and School Committee. The system in recent years has attracted visitors from Japan, Italy, New Zealand, Argentina, and Mongolia, according to Neighbor.

"Cambridge is the beating heart of the future of American democracy," pronounced Dan Johnson-Weinberger, a Chicago-based attorney and election reform activist. "I'm very excited to be in Cambridge," he said, one of four panelists at a symposium on PR, as it is commonly known, held at City Hall during DNC week.

Johnson-Weinberger, in fact, is on a mission to "export the Cambridge-style voting system," he told the audience, made up of Cantabrigians as well as visitors from other parts of the country. Not just in local elections, either, but congressional races and statewide.

Proportional voting and other variations where voters rank their choices provides representation to political minorities as well as majorities, said Johnson-Weinberger, general counsel for the Center for Voting and Democracy, a Maryland-based nonprofit which advocates for fair elections. .

Winner-take-all is based on a "feudal sense of democracy based on where you live, not how you think. . . . If you live in Massachusetts and are a Republican, you don't get any representation in Congress," he said.

Cambridge has used proportional representation since 1941, part of a reform effort that also saw the adoption of the strong-city-manager form of government. Under proportional representation, voters rank the candidates in order of preference; a candidate needs a certain proportion of the votes, or quota, to be elected. Any votes received beyond quota are considered surplus and are redistributed to other candidates.

"Some people think it's a crazy system; I think it works," said Mayor Michael Sullivan after the event. "It gives us a variety of voices."

Indeed, it takes one group made up of one-tenth of the voters to elect one city councilor in Cambridge.

The transfer of votes system has an efffect on campaigns, said Sullivan. "You don't end up with as much confict -- you don't want to tick off other candidates."

In general, women and minorities tend to get more representation under a proportional voting system, said political scientist Pippa Norris of the Kennedy School of Government, who studies electoral systems worldwide. So too, more radical parties.

That's a major reason why municipalities in other parts of the country, including New York City, discontinued the system in the 1940s and 1950s. During the height of the anti-Communist Red scare, two Communists were elected in Harlem and "it freaked people out," said Johnson-Weinberger.

Yet, the system is used by many private boards and foundations, Neighbor said, including Harvard's Board of Overseers. It is also the way delegates are elected to the Democratic National Convention, said James Roosevelt, who was the city's only delegate. According to Norris, about 60 countries have some form of proportional representation.

"It is better for getting people out to the ballot box," she said. "Quite simply, your vote matters."