Cambridge City Councillor David Maher waits tensely for election results Tuesday night at the Central Square Senior Center. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge City Councillor David Maher waits tensely for election results Tuesday night at the Central Square Senior Center. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge comes out of Election Day knowing very little for certain, and even as names of candidates were announced Tuesday night — well, Wednesday morning — the unsettled nature of the wins inspired few cheers as accompaniment. (City Councilor David P. Maher got loud cheers upon reelection, but even listed fourth among preliminary victors he is not assured of having a seat today.)

On the City Council side, Tim Toomey, Henrietta Davis and Denise Simmons can sleep easy believing they have been returned to their seats, and School Committee members Nancy Tauber, Richard Harding, Marc McGovern, Fred Fantini and Alice Turkel should also feel fairly safe.

But the candidates mainly looked sober and thoughtful, rather than exultant. Even family members of Nancy Tauber, the top vote-getter, left with only cautious cheer. She didn’t, but only because she preferred to stay away entirely.

It would be nice to think this sobriety is because governing is a serious business and that the ranks of the losers are also filled with smart, passionate, caring and likable people. And these things are true.

But the subdued aftermath is much more the result of the election process itself — that rare and abstruse system of ranking and redistribution known as proportional representation.

Despite the concerns of workers at polling stations, there were about 16,061 voters this year, an increase of 2,340 from two years ago. But those voters handed in 3,590 auxiliary ballots for the council race, mainly write-ins and surely most for incumbent Marjorie Decker, and 1,017 that can throw the committee race from Patty Nolan to Joe Grassi, incumbents facing off as Turkel claims one of their seats. (Visit the Cambridge Civic Journal for more details.)

Councillor Larry Ward’s suspense is more painful: He’s been defeated in his bid for reelection but knows there’s a chance it may be returned to him today. And he knows there’s nothing he can do to make a win happen.

He and supporters lingered around a table well past midnight parsing 40 pages of surplus vote distribution graphs, debating and conjecturing over what scenarios of reapportionment would be most advantageous, but in the end, they admitted, the information and the exercise was “totally useless.”

Proportional representation is an electoral pachinko game in which candidates earn votes and are forced to watch as they cascade — following laws of physics too complex for the average person to grasp — from here to there, bouncing and jouncing too fast for the eye to follow and arriving dazedly at the bottom with results that may or may not result in a prize. If only proportional representation were a pinball game with flippers to work and a frame to nudge skillfully with a hip. If only there were some control after the game was in motion.

But there isn’t, and today at 9 a.m., the Election Commission will add thousands of auxiliary votes to the pachinko for a brand-new cascade and, very likely, a brand-new unpredictable result. The count is scheduled to go until 5 p.m.

It may very well return Ward to his seat by taking it away from Leland Cheung, Edward Sullivan or Marjorie Decker.

We’ll know soon, and the certainty, at least, will be nice.

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