Saturday, April 20, 2024

Cambridge residents vote in Inman Square. City councillors took on a range of election issues Monday, including voters finding themselves “inactive” when arriving at polls. (Photo: Spanaut)

With the city’s growth to 105,162 people from 101,355 a decade ago, talk of changes to voting wards, districts and precincts arose Monday at a City Council roundtable session. But changes to where people go to vote seemed less likely than the council insisting on better reporting of ballot data on election night, including live reports on the municipal television station and more updates via the Internet.

A third topic during the roundtable with members of the Election Commission and other city officials: the large number of “inactive” voters during recent elections, including people who showed up to vote only to be told they’d been branded inactive.

That list is tied, like the talk of reprecincting, to U.S. Census data, which election commissioner Polyxane S. Cobb said Monday would be available in more depth and simplicity within the next week. But it’s known Cambridge’s population grew 3.76 percent in the past decade, with some of the most obvious growth being in East Cambridge, and that it’s mainly a lack of response to city census forms leading people to find themselves “inactive” when they go to vote.

The large college population in Cambridge makes for a highly transient population, which swells the list of inactive voters. Twenty-five percent of the city’s 63,571 voters, or 15,845 people, are inactive, a number that has grown incrementally for at least the past three years, according to a report from commission. (The growth of inactive voters — at 13 percent when calculating from 14,038 in late 2008 — is out of proportion, however, to the city’s growth in population.)

Being inactive doesn’t mean voters are disenfranchised, Cobb said, only that they must deal with “one of the ugliest forms in existence” to be reactivated officially and that their otherwise valid Election Day vote will certainly be among the challenged ballots in a recount.

Still, councillor Leland Cheung was disturbed by something he saw during the last election: A voter who’d filled out a city census form but was labeled inactive, when another person from the same household — and therefore covered by the same form — was still known to be an “active” voter.

The commissioners had no direct answer for how this could be, with Cobb admitting, “We hear this kind of thing a lot.”

Reprecincting, redistricting draw concerns

Councillors also had concerns about reprecincting overseen by the commission a decade ago when 2000 data from the Census came out, which resulted in some moved borders and lost polling places; and a redistricting decided at the state level that resulted in the loss of a state representative. It was a shock “for a city like Cambridge with 100,000 people to have the universities we have and the biotech we have and to have lost a representative, a Cambridge-based person,” councillor Marjorie Decker said. “Councillor Toomey and Rep. Wolf are the only two legislators who, in my opinion, are answerable to Cambridge because they live here. It makes a difference.”

Tim Toomey is a state representative as well as being a councillor and serves with Alice Wolf, William N. Brownsberger, Jonathan Hecht, Byron Rushing and Martha “Marty” Walz in the House of Representatives. The state senators serving Cambridge, none of whom are residents, are Sal N. DiDomenico, Anthony Petruccelli and Steven A. Tolman.

Decker said she will ask Mayor David Maher to set up a special task force on redistricting so Cambridge doesn’t face another loss.

In terms of redrawing the lines of voting areas in Cambridge, though, the councillors were assured they had little to worry about. “In the end, we are the ones who will in the end draw those precinct lines. We’re not going to do it alone. We’re going to have public hearings and look at what we can do to keep the city as stable as we can while accommodating this additional 3,800 people,” Cobb said. “The one restriction we have is that we can’t break up minority enclaves, which makes a great deal of sense. We can’t just draw a line through an area that is largely one race.”

There is another factor contributing to the likelihood of keeping things largely as they are.

“We don’t have a whole lot of options here. There are not many buildings where requirements for polling places can be met,” election commissioner Peter Sheinfeld told the councillors. “That’s why my gut feeling is to try to stay with what we have.”

Live from Cambridge, it’s election night!

Proposals to provide more information on election returns have been percolating in the council since vote counting in the 2009 election was slowed by write-in ballots for a campaign run by Decker. Some scanners broke as well, slowing the painstaking count of ballots cast using Cambridge’s unique form of proportional representation, and politics watcher Robert Winters was convinced commissioners were also simply slow in sharing information. While some hoped there would be election results at 11 p.m. Election Day, well after most other communities had reported their winners and losers, there was still no news when Cambridge counting shut down at 12:40 a.m. The results actually came in after 8 p.m. Nov. 5, two days after the election.

The council’s eight-week election of a mayor focused even more attention on the delay.

“People are interested in real-time results,” said councillor Henrietta Davis, who brought forward the motion about election information. “All that information could be available. It seems like we have the technical capacity, we just don’t have the wherewithal to put it all together.”

While Sheinfeld was unenthusiastic about rushing results, considering that — usually — unofficial ballot information that used to take days to be released now takes hours, most councillors and Deputy City Manager Richard Rossi were happy to consider how to set up a broadcast area in the Senior Center across from City Hall, where vote counts are done, and find people to explain to watchers of cable access television what was happening. Decades ago, the popular “Cambridge Inside Out” program served that purpose.

“The difficult part is finding people who everybody agree are the appropriate people to do this, and understanding there are First Amendment issues. What they say, we’re not going to be able to control,” Rossi mused. “It is [also] not simple because we don’t have the broadcast booth capability across the street, so it is a little bit of a technological nightmare, but given the fact we’re going to have plenty of time to get it ready, we can do that.”

Based on his own experience, Winters agreed there could be clashes over what political analysts would say that might offend city politicians, and others had concerns over what would take place on air when there was nothing to report, what councillor Sam Seidel called “just filling airtime.”

While councillor Craig Kelley washed his hands of the issue, others looked to members of the media such as Winters and the Cambridge Chronicle to consider a next step.

“This may more be a kickoff to a process than solving the problem this evening,” Davis said.