Friday, June 21, 2024


In 1940, Cambridge residents adopted the Charter Plan E form of municipal government and with a stroke swept away the safeguards meant to keep city hall in check. Under the old Plan B charter, the mayor and councillors were directly elected, the mayor held veto power over the council’s ordinances and the council had override power. The council was internally balanced with 11 ward representatives and four at-large members.

With Plan E, the people elect only a nine-member at-large council, which picks one of its own to be the ceremonial mayor. Absent a real mayor, the council is free to enact ordinances without fear of veto or the need to mount overrides. Running the city falls to a manager who is hired by and nominally serves at the pleasure of the council, but the office has become so autonomous that the former manager outlasted 16 administrations.

The result is a city hall that is more concerned with maintaining Cambridge’s AAA rating than with the issues affecting its neighborhoods, and the only political relief is the biannual trip to the polls where Plan E’s election system, Proportional Representation, controls how votes for councillors are cast, counted and credited.

Off to the races

A municipal election ought to be the simplest thing in the world, and outside of Cambridge it is: people vote, their votes are counted and whoever has the biggest tally wins. But the PR experience, from end to end, is contrived. Here the norm of one-person-one-vote has morphed into ranking multiple candidates on a single ballot, even though only one vote will count. Ranking allows votes to be transferred, used and re-used again and again by one candidate after another. The number of votes a candidate can receive is capped at 10 percent, identical to the vote quota needed to win. And a candidate’s primary mode of reaching the quota is by taking votes from defeated rivals in round after round until nine councilors have been elected.

While the rounds often seem endless, the outcome of many elections is settled in round one. In each of the 37 elections since 1941, the top three vote-getters in round one were elected 100 percent of the time, the next five (4, 5, 6, 7 and 8) were elected 96 percent of the time, and the ninth was elected 70 percent of the time. The top nine vote-getters in round one have been elected 49 percent of the time (18 out of 37 elections), and in 11 of those their positions didn’t budge from start to finish. With so much changelessness, it’s fair to wonder what’s the point of prolonging for several rounds what can be decided in one.

More importantly, a serious design flaw taints the count. Round one votes are counted in precinct order as determined by random draw, meaning the votes in a candidate’s pile are layered precinct on top of precinct. They are not evenly mixed from throughout the entire city. In 2013, Leland Cheung was elected in round one with about 600 surplus votes – exactly which 600 were transferred?

This is a crucial question because PR contests are truly races; the goal is not just to reach the quota but to reach it before the other guy. Like being the first player reaching Home in a board game like Parcheesi. Transferring only “overflows,” which are probably loaded with votes from the same precinct, would skew the results, so in an effort to avert this every fourth vote of Cheung’s total was transferred (using the Cincinnati Method calculation) until 600 were redistributed. Yet even if this fix canceled out the bias in a single transfer – an impossibility short of blind luck – there is no way it could remedy the bias that permeated the rest of the count.

This is not an issue in non-PR elections. They aren’t races, so the order of the count is irrelevant and the result will be the same whether votes are counted forward, backward or starting in the middle. But a different random draw in PR will cause a different outcome, and because it is a race there is no imposed order that will fairly credit votes. PR’s impracticality was showcased during the 2013 council recount. To accurately reproduce the original automated count’s tortuous course, the manual recount employed 70 election workers, lasted nine days and cost $110,000 to count fewer than 18,000 votes.

Exhausted votes and mandates

In the final round, 90 percent of the votes will be credited to nine winners, but what about the remaining 10 percent? If you think they are scattered among the losing candidates, you’d be very mistaken. Losers in PR don’t rate the courtesy of losing with dignity and keeping their votes. They are stripped to zero to feed the transfer mechanism.

The remaining 10 percent won’t be credited to anyone. Officially they are “exhausted” because any candidates they were cast for or might be transferred to are already defeated or elected. In council races, 10 percent of the votes – roughly the voting power of an entire ward and almost enough to elect a 10th councilor – always has been and will always be exhausted.

Understanding, or sensing, that there is a 1-in-10 chance their votes might end up uncredited can be a strong incentive for voters to hedge their bets by ranking as many candidates as they can stand. And if only 90 percent of the votes really matter, maybe that explains the steady decline in turnout, which has dropped 54 percent since its highest point of 39,000 in 1949.

Exhausted votes are close relatives of a concoction called wasted votes, which PR think tank FairVote defines as “ballots cast for losing candidates along with any extraneous votes cast in support of winning candidates.” This is something that exists only to PR theorists; to the electorate, there are no wasted votes, even for losing candidates, as long as they are credited as intended.

The voting public needs to be aware of the low worth this notion gives to their civic participation, and of the designs it has on their votes. Because without the presumption that votes are being wasted, PR elections would have no quotas, there would be no votes to co-opt for transfer from candidate to candidate in round after round, and there would be no votes to exhaust on the belief that it is tolerable in a democracy to disenfranchise voters because their candidates have already won or lost – even though the count hasn’t ended.

Another victim is the mandate. A strong showing at the polls is usually a signal from the people either to forge full speed ahead or to change course, but PR has all but engineered mandates out of elections. The final tally, which guarantees that none of the winners will be credited with more votes (and with more clout) than any other, is at odds with the first round tally. In 2013, Leland Cheung handily won round one – the popular vote – by getting 64 percent more votes than his nearest competitor.

Anywhere else but Cambridge that would be grounds enough to be mayor, but after the people spoke they were promptly forgotten, leaving councillors to behave like independent agents and not representatives. After considerable maneuvering, and never revealing the reasons for their decision to anyone’s satisfaction, councillors picked the No. 2 vote-getter.


What is the gold standard of voting systems? One possibility is to faithfully credit votes as they are intended in a way that can be easily followed by anyone. This is an open system. Another possibility is to treat votes as inputs to an elaborate process of operations and calculations that requires special knowledge to grasp what’s going on. This is a closed system – a black box like PR.

Advocates admit that PR is complex but claim that ignorance of its complexities doesn’t pose a problem. In Real Choices/New Voices, professor Douglas J. Amy says that “Voters need not understand the formulas underlying PR systems in order to use them effectively; they need only to be able to accomplish such simple tasks as casting a vote for a party or writing numbers to rank the candidates they prefer.”

That’s like telling buyers that they only need to know how to hand over their cash and trust that the change they get is correct. But surely they would be, and are, better consumers by understanding the formula that underlies change-making.

To reassert their place in the political equation, and to start redressing the errors of Plan E, the people of Cambridge need to end Proportional Representation’s 74-year run and adopt an electoral system that requires no special knowledge, isn’t biased and leaves no one disenfranchised.

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Rick Snedeker is a resident of Clifton Street in North Cambridge and a member of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods.