Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Communities across the country are voting today, but Cambridge is the only one doing it this way.

This is the only city in the country using proportional representation to elect city councilors and school committee members.

“I live in Somerville,” Ivan Schneider said yesterday. “I’d move to Cambridge, but its too complicated to vote there.”

Schneider was impressed, though, by the assertion that proportional representation discourages negative campaigning because candidates don’t want to turn off voters who choose other candidates — since it’s in their interest to be that voter’s second choice.

And proportional representation isn’t all that complicated.

Well, it’s a little complicated.

In contrast to winner-take-all voting, proportional representation allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and that’s how ballots are sorted. Once a candidate reaches the “quota,” calculated by dividing the total number of ballots cast plus one by the number of positions to be elected plus one, the candidates’ additional ballots are redistributed among the remaining candidates according to the voter’s next preference.

A voter education forum discussing proportional representation was held Sunday at the Harvard Science Center. Jude Stull, the chairman of the Harvard Extension School Democrats and a Cambridge native, organized the forum.

“Good government costs more than money. It requires the deliberate effort over time that some call vigilance,” Stull said.

Mayor Michael Sullivan and candidates Craig Kelley and Bill Hees attended. The forum also included a lively presentation by George Goverman, the auditor of municipal elections, and Robert Winters, who runs the Cambridge Civil Journal site on the World Wide Web.

The call for proportional representation voting was a central theme in the progressive movement of the early 20th Century.

Progressives who advocated child law labor reform, antimonopoly legislation and advocates for women’s suffrage saw proportional representation as a key government reform that would break up the domination of the “party machines” and ensure adequate representation of minorities.

Two dozen American cities, including Cambridge, adopted some form of proportional representation during the first half of the 20th Century. Cambridge held its first such election in 1942. Every city except Cambridge has repealed proportional representation, which advocates attribute to political pressure and lawsuits levied by the major parties that lost influence under the system.

Meanwhile, Cambridge’s electoral system draws attention from countries such as New Zealand, Argentina, Mongolia and Italy. According to statistics compiled by Mount Holyoke College, 21 of 28 advanced western democracies in Western Europe use some form of proportional representation.

Studies show that proportional representation produces fairer results, alleviating the tendency of winner-take-all voting to overrepresent the majority and underrepresent the minority. Proponents also argue that proportional representation minimizes wasted votes. The ballot transfer process ensures that most people’s votes actually elect someone to office.