Saturday, July 20, 2024

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.


  • 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.

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Apply for a mail in or drop-off voting ballot at

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.