Every four years there is a call to abolish the U.S. electoral college. In Cambridge, elections incite calls to end proportional representation — our rare form of voting in which candidates are ranked instead of just chosen or rejected.
There have been five attempts to change how Cambridge elects its councillors and School Commission members, all undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s and all rejected. It’s worth remembering that those referenda on proportional representation came when people were more excited about voting in general; the average citywide election in the 1950s drew more than 36,500 voters, or about 30 percent of the population at the time, while the average figure in the past decade was below 17,000, or less than 17 percent of the population. Anyone keen to change how Cambridge votes would face the paradox of inspiring residents to go to the polls to decide how they use the polls once they get there. Even a 2003 vote on rent control, a pretty hot topic for Cambridge, brought out only some 21,000 voters.
It’s true: Proportional representation is complex, and it can certainly be confusing. The most recent election became a superlative reminder of that when a write-in campaign brought on a recount and kept candidates and the city in suspense for two days.
The Election Commission and other branches of city government could do some things to ease the complexity and confusion.
It could follow a suggestion heard last month by the City Council calling for more transparency for elections through technology: constantly refreshed information on the commission Web site, for instance, and access for a public television camera crew that would give live updates on a count. These improvements would force a change in how the commission communicates. As it is, a count or recount consists of a lot of people standing around watching and waiting as commissioners, staffers and volunteers have lengthy, private huddles.
This can go too far. The commission’s Web site says “An ‘unofficial first count’ of No. 1 votes for each candidate for City Council and School Committee will be available on election night within minutes of receipt of the memory card from the last reporting precinct.” There are complaints that didn’t happen this year.
Another suggested improvement, heard among those waiting for recount results, is that the commission could do more to explain the process and advantages of proportional representation itself. Cambridge has a large number of media- and tech-savvy people and companies that could easily whip up an animated video showing how proportional representation works — how votes are redistributed, for example — and demystifying the process. The video could be placed on city Web sites, YouTube and local cable channels, where commissioners could complement the technical explanation with a discussion of the system’s benefits.
And there are benefits, ones that befit a city that boasts of its intellectual rigor.
The main one is that the system is more involving and therefore more thoughtful than other election processes. Its very nature compels voters to pay attention — and the wider the field, the more attention is demanded. In the most recent election there were 21 candidates vying for nine council seats, and coming up with a rationale to place 21 candidates in order of preference means looking at more issues and, subsequently, being conscious of where each candidate weighs in on each.
During five attempts within 13 years to overturn proportional representation, arguments pro and con were made and evaluated repeatedly by thousands of engaged voters, and each time a majority chose to keep the system. Rather than go through the exercise again, the city should take steps to clarify and advertise its virtues.
It would be a simple, but smart, thing to do.