# How to vote in Cambridge, where ballots allow candidates to be ranked in order of preference

**What kind of voting system does Cambridge use?** Cambridge employs a citywide “at-large” ranked-choice voting form (also called proportional representation, or PR). Under this system, a candidate for City Council or the School Committee must win a certain proportion of the votes cast (called the “quota”) to be elected.

**How does Cambridge’s voting system work?** Voters pick as many candidates as they wish, ranking them in their preferred order. Once the count starts, the No. 1 votes are looked at first for each candidate. If any has enough No. 1 votes to reach the quota on the first round, that candidate is elected automatically. If a candidate elected on the first round has more votes than the quota number, the surplus votes go to the next choice among candidates not yet elected, the “continuing candidates.”

Next the candidate with the fewest No. 1 votes is taken up by the tabulator; this candidate is eliminated from consideration and their No. 2 votes are redistributed to the candidates getting this candidate’s voters’ No. 2 choices.

These processes repeat until there are no votes left to be redistributed and all nine city councillor seats or all six School Committee seats are filled. The tabulator’s vote count movement shifts from top to bottom to top again. In 2021, it took 13 rounds of transfer votes until the final results were known.

**What is the quota?** In brief, it’s the fewest number of votes required to elect candidates to the number of seats to be filled. Each Cambridge election is different, so the total number of ballots cast varies, as does the quota number. To determine it, one looks at the total count of legitimate ballots cast and divides by the number of seats being filled plus 1 (nine for City Council plus 1, and six for School Committee plus 1). One then adds 1 to the number; if this is a fraction, it is rounded up.

For example, if 20,000 valid ballots are cast for City Council, divide this number by 10 (nine seats plus 1) to get 2,000; then 1 more is added to get a quota of 2,001. For the School Committee, one would divide by 7 (six seats plus 1) to get 2,857.14; add 1 and round up to get a quota of 2,858. In 2017, each council candidate had to get 2,001 votes to win; a school committee member had to earn 2,858 votes to win. In a few cases, candidates win without reaching quota if they are still standing (still in play) once all votes have been distributed.

**Why do No. 1 votes count so much?** Candidates with the most No. 1 votes at the outset (the first round) have a far better chance of winning a position on the council or School Committee because they need fewer transfer votes (those marked No. 2, No. 3. No. 4, etc.). That is why all candidates ask for your No. 1 vote – it decreases their chances of being eliminated early in the process and increases their chances of being elected. In many elections, only one person reaches quota the first round, so eight of nine council candidates need a sizable number of No. 2, No. 3 and other votes to reach quota. Your No. 1 vote is the most important, but your other vote choices are critical too.

**How many people should you vote for?** Voters should rank as many candidates as they think would make good councillors or School Committee members. If one’s No. 1 choice candidate does not make the “cut” (quota), votes for the No. 2 (and No. 3, No. 4 choices, etc.) likely will transfer to other candidates one supports, increasing the chances they or your No. 1 choice will be elected. In some Cambridge elections, just a few dozen “pass up” (transfer) votes determine the winner. And in some years, there can be 17-plus rounds of vote redistributions before we know the final count. The more people you vote for, the more your candidates can benefit from other candidates you also support, and sometimes your sixth- or seventh-ranked choices can make a real difference by helping other viable choices reach quota and win.

**Summary:**

- Your No. 1 vote counts the most, since this makes it easier for your preferred candidate to reach the necessary vote threshold to get elected, and the quantity of No. 1 votes a candidate gets determines how quickly he or she is eliminated from consideration.
- All your votes also count, though, so vote for as many candidates as you think would make good city councillors or School Committee members. Even if they don’t win, their votes may help your other, more preferred candidates get elected.

There are videos on this process, made locally and nationally.

- Ranked Choice Voting Video by former Councillor Jan Devereux (the “zoo” analogy)
- The Script of Jan Devereux’s Ranked Choice Voting Video Script (the “zoo” analogy)
- Rolling Stone’s Ranked Choice Voting in 60 seconds video (ice cream analogy)

See also:

- rwinters.com/elections/supplement.htm
- fairvote.org/spotlight_cambridge/
- rcvresources.org/in-practice-cambridge-ma
- Register to vote (or learn if you are registered to vote)

See also: cambridgema.gov/Departments/electioncommission

Apply for a mail in or drop-off voting ballot at sec.state.ma.us/MailInRequestWeb/MailInBallot.aspx

**Date of in-person 2023 voting in Cambridge:** Nov. 7.

*Suzanne Preston Blier is a Harvard Professor who teaches a course on Cambridge history and civic matters and also leads several groups in the city.*

Helpful, thank you. Why is there 1 added to number of seats to determine the quota?

Ranked choice is way too confusing and looks somewhat shady at first glance for most people who don’t have time or inclination to review voting academic literature [Arrow, Kenneth J. (1950)].

As the ancient adage goes “In a complex world best to keep it simple”.

When I buy groceries I don’t rank potatoes vs. tomatoes vs. milk vs. bread; I just grab whatever essentials I need and checkout.

If I need to buy some dessert then I might do some ranking but I usually just pick one item (and different each time).

It would be better to have the voters only mark the people on the ballot that they want on the council (with no ranked ordering).

Tally all the thumbs up and pick the top 10.

We can also add that candidates with fewer than 0.5 * quota don’t qualify and we end up with a council fewer than the desired number. Drop or add from the end of the sorted list to get an odd number of council members.

The election quota is best understood as the maximum number of ballots any candidate can keep in order to ensure proportional representation. [You don’t actually have to reach quota in order to be elected. You need only be among the surviving candidates at the end of the series of runoffs.]

In the 1800s, the election quota (The “Hare Quota” – named for Thomas Hare) was determined by taking the total number of ballots divided by the number to be elected. However, it was known that you actually needed fewer votes to be among those elected, and in small elections organizers actually would game the system to get greater efficiency out of their supporters.

In the late 1800s, Henry Richmond Droop wrote a paper that proposed using a lower threshold defined to be “the lowest number of votes needed to ensure that you would elect no more than the number that is to be elected”. This is where the +1 in the divisor and rounding up comes from. This revised quota has ever since been known as the “Droop Quota”.

The rationale is pretty simple. Once each candidate reaches slightly more than 10% of all valid ballots in an election to elect 9, it is not possible to elect more than 9 of the candidates.

Excellent article, voters tell me they need this to demystify our confusing system.

The +1 quota is a mathematical necessity to ensure that you don’t have wasted votes. It’s a good thing that Cambridge has adopted it.

Worldwide the +1 quota is known as the “Droop quota”; the “Hare quota” is when you divide the number of votes by the number of seats. The mathematical fairness issue was resolved conclusively in the Australian State of Tasmania, which experimented with both systems over a period between 1897 and 1909. In 1909 they settled on the Droop quota for the following reasons stated by a parliamentary report:

“Considering an election as a contest between candidates, it is clear that a candidate who obtains the Droop quota has more votes than it is possible for each of the six other candidates to obtain; and therefore the first-mentioned candidate has sufficient votes to entitle him to election. Even if the Hare quota is used. any candidate who obtains a number of votes equal to the Droop quota is elected, for the reason stated in the last sentence; and a candidate who obtains the Hare quota receives an excess of votes which are not really required by him, and which are therefore wasted. Hence it is clear that, considering an election as a contest between candidates, the Droop quota is to be preferred to the Hare quota.”

Trying to figure this out.

Once your vote is counted for your #1 pick. Are the rest of your votes still

Counted?

Person 1 votes for A and B

Person 2 votes for A and C

Person 1 puts A over the limit. So now person 2 vote for C is counted. What about the vote for B from Person 1?

rpadilla, each person gets a single vote. So in this scenario, person 1’s vote for B has no effect.