52 Years of A Representative City Council and School Board

Howard Fain

Ballot-Count Runs Smoothly
        After fifty-two years of conducting elections using the preference voting (PV) form of proportional representation, election officials in Cambridge (MA) run a smooth operation. They had better: the counting area is monitored by hundreds of people, many tallying each vote in each count. The community cable TV crew offers regular updated reports and analysis.
        Anyone who says folks have trouble understanding preference voting (PV) should check out the technical expertise of these observers. Besides, what is so difficult about each candidate needing to gain about 10% of votes cast to win one of nine seats? But for Cambridge voters, the technical stuff is not the point; it's only a means to get at the politics.

Political Context
        The main political divide is between the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) and Independents. Saturday night after the election, the place buzzed as an incumbent CCA councilor was eliminated, leaving four candidates for the three remaining seats. Transferring this incumbent's ballots would determine which candidates won and whether the CCA would have a majority.
        The defeated incumbent was on the CCA slate, but was a "neighborhood guy" from North Cambridge. A theory spread that his ballots might transfer more to a fellow North Cambridge candidate who was an Independent than to the two remaining CCA candidates, both women. In the end, his ballots elected the two CCA candidates, and the CCA kept its majority. From both sides, weary after the counting, there was much admiration expressed for a system that fairly represents all voters and interests.

Fair African-American Representation
        In this city of 13.5% African-Americans, a black man (the current mayor) was the only candidate elected on the first count, and two black women were among six elected to the school committee. With no district lines, the city has had continuous representation of people of color since the 1950s, which is quite instructive for local jurisdictions seeking to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
        Finally, at the count I often was asked about computerizing the count. The hand count has much to offer in terms of civic involvement and drama, but computer technology is ready and is both faster and more precise. Computerization would allow more cities and states to use this sensible and fair voting system.

        Howard Fain is CV&D Board Secretary and co-founder of the Massachusetts Fair Ballot Coalition.


North Carolina legislature funds committee to investigate use of alternative voting systems: The commission also will look at electoral laws affecting campaign financing and voter registration, setting an excellent model for other states.
        In Washington state, bills were introduced in the House and Senate to allow cities to adopt PR.

Departing Boston mayor calls for cumulative voting: Raymond Flynn (now ambassador to the Vatican) proposed electing the city's school board by cumulative voting, the system used in Peoria (IL) and Alamogordo (NM). Flynn's announcement followed a Boston Globe editorial declaring that "alternative voting systems, like cumulative voting or proportional representation. . . are now an open issue."

• New York uses PR for 1993 Community School Board elections. In May over 400,000 New Yorkers -- the highest turnout ever -- voted in the city's school board elections using preference voting. The election drew national attention because of the involvement of the Christian Coalition and liberal organizations; rather instructively, both sides declared victory.
        Since PR's adoption in 1969, school board members have closely mirrored the racial, gender and ethnic composition of the city. Pro-PR organizations point out that better community education and count computerization would improve the election process.

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