Election eve

Cambridge elections are tomorrow, with responsible decision making complicated as usual in a place where the political spectrum usually ranges between Left and A Little Further to the Left.

It makes the process more difficult to always be working when meetings or debates are held, but it must be confusing for other citizens as well; our ballots and election commission don’t even identify party affiliations, so we rely on candidates to identify themselves as, say, fascists (none this year, that I know of) or republicans (council candidate Robert L. Hall).

Responsible voting also requires a little more attention in Cambridge because its voting is different than most, a process called “proportional representation” or “instant runoff.” We prioritize our votes, marking the candidate we want most as No. 1, our second-best choice as No. 2 and so on down the line — somewhat exhausting in a place as political as Cambridge, where 20 people are vying for nine seats on the council and another eight are seeking six school committee seats. City computers figure out how many votes a candidate needs to win; the votes of the least-voted-for candidates are turned over to the candidates above, according to rank, until there are the right number of winners.

It may be complicated, but not so much that the complication outweighs its value; not to badmouth the electoral college, but if federal elections used it in a popular vote, we’d have a President Gore right now, without hesitation, confusion or doubt. Cambridge has used this method since 1941, long before computers made it easy, so San Francisco’s election officials — who refused to implement it this year, in violation of the city charter — really have no excuse. But it leaves Cambridge as the only U.S. city using the system.

Actually, it’s not that proportional representation may be complicated. It really is complicated. It forces voters to rank candidates, even if they don’t really prefer one over another. And the local media, the weekly Cambridge Chronicle, is little help in making those distinctions.

The Chronicle is top-tier for the Community Newspaper Co., which is owned by Boston Herald owner Herald Media Inc., so the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of staff or money. (Copies of this week’s paper, with “voters’ guide” inside, were delivered free throughout the city, including two to my house — wretched excess.) It’s just that the political coverage relies mainly on factoids, those isolated bits of data that, detached from context or subtext, tend to confuse more than inform.

An Oct. 22 graphic, for instance, looks like it compares the number of policy orders and resolutions filed by city councilors from January to the date of publication with the number of policy orders and resolutions they filed in all of last year.

It is clear that there are three councilors who file far more policy orders and resolutions than the others. If only I knew what a policy order was, or how it differed from a resolution, that could be interesting or meaningful. And what if they’re filing policy orders or resolutions demanding such things as “All underwear is to be worn on the outside”? What’s with the horse-racing image serving as background to the chart, and why is the graphic labeled “Race to November”? Does filing motions have anything to do with their value as candidates, especially since there are 11 people running for council seats who, because they’re not on the council, didn’t file any policy orders or resolutions in this year or the last?

Things get even more confusing when the next week’s chart shows that Mayor Anthony Sullivan filed 109 resolutions in 2002, even though the first chart shows he filed 54. That indicates the chart shows activity within a certain period, not activity to date, but it doesn’t say what the period is. A week? Could the mayor really file 163 resolutions in a two-week period, which is two meetings?

Similarly, this week’s voting guide consists of excerpts from answers the candidates gave to three questions posed during recent debates. The topics are on Cambridge public schools, “On public safety” and “On balancing affordable housing, development and open space.”

The answers are less than illuminating.

On “CPS,” for instance, Anthony Galluccio thinks “the school system has become a centerpiece issue, and I think that’s new and I think that’s good for the city. I think all of our constituents demand our full attention to the school system and they ask us to weigh in.”

Apart from the last sentence making no sense, a risk when transcribing oral responses, how is this helpful compared with the response of Vance Dixon, who proposes “separate high school(s) for classics, for science, for performing arts and for the occupational and independent programs”?

Or how about Robert La Tremouille, who says that “The real function of the City Council with regard to the schools is the budget, and if we had a normal situation with regard to our government, that is where it would end … The budget is such that we’re closing schools and we’re firing teachers …” And? It’s impossible to tell from this what La Tremouille thinks should be done, or why. And so on.

Don’t turn to the editor for guidance. Although the Chronicle has regularly “criticized the City Council as a do-nothing celebratory body with little more to do than name corners after constituents,” the lead editorial this week says, “Monday’s landmark decision in the Riverside rezoning process proved us wrong.”

“We can think of no better nine to lead the city forward,” the editor writes.

So the nine councilors can sit around doing nothing all year — and redeem themselves entirely with a single vote. Gee. Thanks for the help, Chronicle.

(The editorial also says that although “Several of the challengers brought interesting ideas to the table … none convinced us they were ready to take on the toughest challenge of the campaign: being a Cambridge City Councilor.” This perplexing bit of rhetoric makes one wonder if the toughest challenge of dieting is not having to.)

Thank goodness the candidates reveal themselves, although the Chronicle does deserve credit for helping. In an Oct. 15 article about city schools failing to lead students in the pledge of allegiance every day, school committee incumbent Fred Fantini said he thinks “we should comply with state law … especially considering the situation our country is in, I think it’s important that we encourage patriotism whenever we can.”

Thank you, Fred Fantini. In a flood of shades of mauve, you have made yourself stand out in screaming, brilliant blood red in my rankings. That’s one down, 27 candidates to go.

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