Cambridge Examines Computerization

George Governman

        As auditor of Cambridge's preferential elections -- and thus perhaps the person with the most to lose financially from changing ballot-counting procedures -- one might assume I would view the Center for Voting and Democracy's report on computerization of city elections with much misgiving.
        Not so. In fact, I have been waiting fifteen years for someone to take a serious look at computerized vote tallying of preference elections. I even went so far as to write a prototype program myself. With the Cambridge Election Commission's hearing on the successful testing of CV&D's PRMaster, I was delighted to see the idea get beyond the mere proposal stage.
        Cambridge, the only city in the country to use preference voting for municipal elections, got to this advanced state of consideration through a series of coincidences: in 1992, a Yale professor had wanted to study the city's ballots in connection with Ross Perot's third party candidacy; a close aide of a city councillor had written a master's thesis on preference voting; and the Center for Voting and Democracy (CV&D) was eager to test its newly developed program on a real election.
        By the end of 1993, the city councillor got the council to act on a proposal to have CV&D run its program on the 1991 ballots and report back. It was not the first time someone had suggested computerization -- proposals date back at least to the 1960s -- but it was the first time the city was willing to spend money on one.
        Cambridge has not been alone in its reluctance to harness computers to preference voting. Whenever I attempted to get other jurisdictions interested in my program (Ireland, Australia, Bulgaria, even New York City and Cincinnati), the response, if any, was less than encouraging. Those who responded wanted to see it work someplace else first.
        Thus the CV&D test of PRMaster against a previously hand-counted election is the breakthrough I -- and presumably others -- have been waiting for. As I told someone at the hearing who wanted to know how PRMaster was going to be tested, "This was the test. If a program replicates a city election, it works!"
        The Cambridge Election Commission appears ready to take the next step, which is to draft and issue a Request For Proposals. PRMaster is not Cambridge's new election system, but it may be the heart of its new system, and details have to be worked out.
        In the meantime, the main impediment to computerized elections in Cambridge seems to be of less weight than once thought. Cambridge is not only proud of its proportional system of elections, it also enjoys the week-long count it has used for 50 years, sometimes described as a cross between a country fair and a political convention.
        But the sentiment at the hearing was that keeping the tradition should not prevent making PR accessible to others, which the hand count surely does. So Cambridge seems to have found both a will and a way, and I am optimistic that my week of auditing will soon be a thing of the past.

        George Goverman has been auditor for the count for the past two elections and is a former Cambridge election commissioner.

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