Sam Seidel talks with city councillor Ken Reeves in 2005, a year Seidel bid for council and fell short. But fellow challenger Craig Kelley made it on; Seidel succeeded in 2007; and Leland Cheung followed in 2009. (Photo: Schuyler Pisha)

A voter information site called Cambridge Election 2011 has gone live, complete with links to news stories in local media, candidate profiles, videos and special sections on City Manager Robert W. Healy — called “Rehire city manager?” and “This year your vote counts” — and how to “Make Your Vote Count,” which argues that anyone who wants to elect any of nine City Council challengers has to follow a specific set of steps in Cambridge’s ranked form of voting, called proportional representation.

Namely: Never rank fewer than five candidates for Nos. 1 through 5 choices for council; and do not vote for an incumbent until the No. 5 rank.

“In fact, vote the strongest three challengers at the top. They need to survive into the count,” the site says. “Twenty-five percent of No. 1 votes went to challengers last election. One was elected. Disciplined voting by these voters should change two councillors.”

The site, at cambridgeelection2011.com, is described as “a voter education project” by community activists Heather Hoffman, Mark Jaquith and Charles Teague, all frequent speakers in public comment periods of meetings focusing on development and zoning. The site reveals an interest in whether Healy will be rehired, since his three-year contract expires Sept. 30, and in getting challengers onto the nine-seat board.

Citing candidate Q&As published in the Chronicle, the group has included a chart of where council incumbents and challengers stand on whether to rehire Healy, with some in the “Won’t say” category and a final column suggesting whether candidates would replace Healy, if necessary, with someone already “inside” City Hall.

The group suspects this will be the 68-year-old Healy’s final year as city manager because of his current contract’s generous pension benefits; bad press over his high pay and civil rights cases just settled by the city for millions of dollars; and the completion of an “impressive legacy of spectacular construction projects” including the Cambridge Main Library, high school and police station — which bears Healy’s name.

Voting guide

In Cambridge’s form of voting, candidates have to make “quota” to be elected, with quota being determined by a formula that starts by looking to how many seats there are on a given panel. Because there are six School Committee members, to be elected a candidate needs to meet a quota roughly equivalent to one-seventh of the city’s voters; with nine seats on the council, quota there is about one-tenth of of the electorate.

In Hoffman’s description of proportional representation voting:

The most important vote on each ballot is the No. 1 vote. Anyone who reaches quota based solely on No. 1 votes is elected. Any extra ballots beyond quota are “redistributed” by giving those ballots to the candidate listed as No. 2, or No. 3, if the No. 2 candidate has already been elected. After all of the possible ballots are redistributed, candidates with the smallest number of votes (No. 1s plus any redistributed ballots) are eliminated one by one and their ballots are redistrib- uted to their No. 2, or No. 3 or 4, etc., depending on whether the listed candidate is still in the race (i.e., neither elected nor eliminated yet). Elimination and redistribution continue until nine city councillors or six School Committee members have been chosen.

The way this simultaneous cascade works, said the group behind the website, means “Your vote basically falls thru the count until it ‘sticks’ to a winner (likely an incumbent). You can … guide your vote to a winning challenger. You may not get your challenger, but you get to choose that a challenger is elected.”

Expert weighs in

Leland Cheung learns he won election to the council in 2009 as fellow challenger James Williamson, who did not win a seat, looks on. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge politics watcher Robert Winters, who runs the Cambridge Civil Journal site, said this approach is correct when looked at from an anti-incumbent perspective.

“Any constituency on the order of approximately 10 percent can elect a councillor. If that constituency might be gender based, race based, issue based, or anti-incumbent based, as long as you have 10 percent or close to it — because you’re going to get votes from other sources as well — all agreeing only to vote for challengers, and if they all vote long enough so that as candidates are knocked off they can transfer and eventually all amass on one, then they most certainly can elect their representative,” Winters said. “That’s exactly what the whole proportional representation and single-transferable vote mechanism is designed to do.”

“The question really is only: ‘Is there somewhere, not necessarily a full 10 percent, but somewhere approaching 10 percent of the voting population who feels so strongly?’” he said. “I don’t know that there is. Typically, a voter will list a challenger or two but then some incumbents too, and then incumbents will probably be ahead of the others in the poll, so votes that go with them will stay with them. The ballot will tend to stick with an incumbent if that incumbent has not yet been elected and is likely to be elected — because the only time the ballot will transfer is if a candidate has way too many, but that doesn’t happen too often, or if the top choices are early losers.”

Leland Cheung, who was elected two years ago and became the only new face on the council, benefited from an anti-incumbent feeling, Winters said, and many of those who ran then are running again, including Charles Marquardt, Tom Stohlman, James Williamson and Minka vanBeuzekom. But Cheung simply got more No. 1 votes — 756, or only 144 short of incumbent Sam Seidel and only 74 more than vanBeuzekom.

“Leland outdistanced the other challengers by getting his sufficient No. 1 votes to put him up in the running so that when the transfer process started to kick in, he was in a position to benefit while the other ones were being counted out,” Winters said.

In the municipal elections two years ago, when Cheung was voted in, 16,073 ballots were cast (an increase of 2,352 from four years ago). With 59,866 registered voters, that was an overall turnout of 27 percent, but Winters, a mathematician and educator, believes voter rolls are swollen with people who may have left the city long ago or simply don’t go to the polls. A more accurate estimate of legitimate voter turnout in 2009 was about 34 percent, he has said.

While he’s skeptical there’s a solid 10 percent of voters wholly dedicated to electing challengers over incumbents, he has seen a steady, anti-incumbent drip over the past decade. “That’s why people like Craig Kelley were elected. If Kelley wasn’t going to get in the year he was elected, it was going to be John Pitkin, because there was a movement in that way,” Winters said. “So long as it doesn’t get watered down by kind of getting dodged off to an incumbent, it’s enough to give a big advantage to one challenger. It’s debatable whether it’s close enough to 10 percent to actually do it, but you know we have seen Craig, then Sam and now Leland elected.”