Well, the elections have come and gone and as usual the focus of the conversation is who has won and who has lost and why. Politics in Massachusetts has always been considered a blood sport, and even in the left bank of Boston council races have never been laid back. But I have often wondered how it is that anyone can discern why people win or lose races, especially given that we don’t have anything remotely akin to exit interviews. Although candidates for City Council spend way too much to get elected, I’m not aware of any polling done by them to determine what issues are likely to influence voting, at least not since rent control.
The more interesting issue for me is why the numbers of people voting has gone down and what that means for the people charged with governing. Is there a mandate, as politicians like to claim, for any particular course of action when only 16,070 people in a city of 100,300 (16 percent) bothered to vote in local elections?
Voting, even before I became involved in politics, has always been sacred to me. Looking back, I don’t know the reason I grew up with that notion. My parents voted, but it’s not like we had evening meals peppered with conversations about politics — although my father, the Greek immigrant bar owner, thought all politicians were crooks. And I don’t remember any particular lesson I learned in my civics classes or “aha” moment that made me think that voting was important. It just was.
Once when I was part of a team of international election observers in Baku, Azerbaijan, I was stunned to see a man walk into the polling place just as the ballots were about to be counted and drop hundreds of fake ballots onto the floor. I couldn’t have been more shocked to see such overt voter fraud than if the man had dropped his trousers. I kept sputtering to my colleagues, “But this is voting, how can you do that!” as if it were a sacred site that had been desecrated by some heathen nonbeliever.
Some people think it is the complicated voting system that we have in Cambridge that contributes to people’s indifference, although many countries use proportional representation and don’t have the problem of low voter turnout. Ours, however, is a bit more complicated, used only by the city of Cambridge and called the Cincinnati Method. Cincinnati is a lovely city, but why we are using their method of counting votes is beyond me, especially given that they don’t even use it.
When we vote in Cambridge, we use a ballot where we can rank our votes, one to nine, giving people the ability to vote for more than one candidate. That’s pretty cool, as some candidates win our hearts completely or others may have some valid ideas we want to see put into play, and we don’t want to have to limit our choices. It would seem, therefore, that we have our proverbial cake and eat it too: We get to vote for several candidates, ranking them in order of preference and, at the end of the day, the people who get the most votes are elected. You would be wrong, according to the Cincinnati Method, but intuitively correct given most people’s experiences in voting, be it gathered in a boardroom or deciding among family members from which fast food place to order dinner when everyone is too tired to cook.
To be elected to the City Council one must win quota, not achieve the majority of votes cast. The quota is determined by dividing the number of votes cast by the number 10 and adding one. In this year’s election, quota was 1,608. If a candidate reaches that number when all of the ballots are first counted, they are considered “elected.” But determining the winner is not over after the first round of counting, and herein lays the rub of our brand of proportional representation. The next step in counting to find the winner is to determine which surplus ballots will be transferred to other candidates. If a particular candidate reaches quota on the first round of counting, he or she has a surplus of ballots. Those ballots are numbered sequentially, and, according to another mathematical formula too kinky to describe in a family newspaper, those ballots (votes) are transferred to the No. 2 preferences listed on the ballot. This is also done for the bottom of the list; those people who have gotten so few votes that they are excluded from the final count get their votes transferred up.
In practice it feels like an elaborate game of musical chairs, and the only positive I can see from such a complicated system is that it encourages people to run in slates of candidates. The defunct Cambridge Civic Association was quite good at getting their candidates elected because they offered people a number of choices, a bit like the menu at a pizza joint — pepperoni gets No. 1, but I like pepper and onions; I think I’ll take that as No. 2. And so on.
The result is that a candidate can place ninth on the list of initial vote counting but get booted off the list when the transfer votes are counted. This is indeed an odd thing, as some ballots, albeit chosen randomly, have the power to elect more than one person to office.
Our elections are monitored by the Election Commission, and its members are all very good people, but I wonder whether it wouldn’t be worthwhile if they did more with their resources. First of all, it is bizarre to me that election results — official or unofficial — are not posted on the commission’s Web pages for all the world to see more quickly, including the precinct results. (It is even more bizarre to me that The Boston Globe has billboards touting their neighborhood focus and has yet to run any information on the city’s current elections except a short piece in City Weekly about the top vote getters.) Given that voting is down and continuing to go down, why not spend some time figuring out why and what they or the city could do about it? Who are the people that vote and why?
A vibrant democracy depends on many factors, not the least of which is an engaged and informed electorate. Why, in a city where more than half the voters have college degrees and the average wage is more than $60,000, do we not have more people voting? Would weekend voting help? Are we doing enough to educate voters about local elections? Voter apathy cannot all be laid at the feet of lackluster candidates, nor can the civic education necessary to ensure participation of the electorate be confined to campaign literature mailed in a frenzy over Halloween weekend.
Finally, why not jettison the vote-counting system and move to a simple proportional system employed by many cities and countries in the world with fairly good results? At the least, the civic conversation engendered by such a proposal might get the juices going in a city whose raison d’etre has never been indifference, proportional or not.
Katherine Triantafillou is a family law attorney, international democracy consultant and former Cambridge city councilor.