Earlier this month, voters in Cambridge, Massachusetts participated in the city's 37th City Council and School Committee elections using the at-large form of ranked choice voting The election marks a turning point for the council, with new faces in four of the nine seats after two incumbents lost and two chose not to run for reelection. Among the four newly elected city councilors are an African American, the council's first Latino member, and a 29-year-old Arab American who had been a prominent spokesperson for Occupy Boston.
As we discussed prior to the election, this system has historically allowed for the fair representation of racial, political, and other minority groups that are often underrepresented in single-seat, winner-take-all elections. Though a recount may ultimately alter the results of this year's City Council contest, the fair representation of Cambridge's voters will continue. African Americans will continue to hold two of Cambridge's nine City Council seats and two of the six School Committee seats in the coming term, despite making up just 12% of the city's population. It would be nearly impossible for African American voters to elect a candidate of choice in a winner-take-all system at that population level. African Americans have won representation in Cambridge city government in most elections since the 1970s, due in large part to the low threshold for election inherent in the city's at-large ranked choice voting system.
By allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, the Cambridge system also minimizes the number of voters whose ballots are "wasted" on losing candidates or candidates who win election by a wide margin. Rather than being discarded, votes falling into either of these two categories are transferred to the next candidate for whom the voter has expressed a preference. These transfers allowed Leland Cheung to become Cambridge's youngest ever and first Asian American City Councilor in 2009, when he placed outside the top nine candidates in first choice rankings, but ultimately gained enough votes through transfers to win election.
This year, it was Cheung's many excess first choices that helped candidates further down the ballot. Cheung finished far ahead in the initial count with 2,391 first place rankings, 616 more than the 1,775 vote threshold for election. As a result, 616 of Cheung's supporters had their votes transferred to their second preference. Many of these votes went to incumbent councilwoman Minka vanBeuzekom, who placed 11th in first choice rankings, but after sixteen rounds of transfers from elected and eliminated candidates, is 13 votes shy of the 9th City Council seat heading into a possible recount.
These transfers have historically allowed an average of over 90% of Cambridge voters to help elect a first or second choice candidate, and allowed citizens to vote their conscience without fear of "spoiler" candidates.
Cambridge's ranked choice system also has a positive effect on the tenor of the city's election process, as it discourages negative campaigning. Candidates in a ranked choice system seek to earn high rankings from supporters of their opponents, making aggressive or negative campaigning counterproductive. An upcoming FairVote Voices podcast will take a closer look at the role that Cambridge's ranked choice voting system plays in fostering civility in the city's elections, through interviews with voters, individuals familiar with the city's politics, and former and current Cambridge elected officials.
At a time when politics in the United States has become increasingly polarized and vitriolic at all levels of government, the civility and high levels of voter satisfaction associated with ranked choice voting in Cambridge are refreshing. These characteristics, along with enhanced representation of minority groups, and accurate representation of the will of the electorate, undergird FairVote's support for the use of ranked choice voting in multi-member districts to elect the U.S. House of Representatives. The experience of Cambridge voters illustrates the way electoral structures can have a dramatic impact on the nature of politics and the quality of representation.
Stay tuned for upcoming FairVote analysis with more details on how ranked choice voting and the 10% threshold for election shaped this year’s contest in Cambridge.