Posted on January 16, 1996
Choice Voting has clearly provided African-Americans with electoral opportunities unavailable under a winner-take-all system. Cambridge voters, to a large degree, engage in racially cohesive voting. While the introduction of coalition-building in Cambridge has eased the election of African-Americans and women, Choice Voting was instrumental in allowing these opportunities to form. There have been five referenda (in 1952, 1953, 1957, 1961, and 1965) on whether to repeal or retain the Choice Voting system. Each time the vote was to retain it. Choice Voting has also withstood legal challenges, as recently as 1996.
The Choice Voting system in Cambridge has many clear advantages for minority representation over the traditional winner-take-all method of election. By allowing for proportional representation, Choice Voting only requires that a minority population is at least 10% of the total population in order to guarantee a City Council seat or 14% for a school committee seat. Under a typical winner-take-all system, a 51% white-majority can dominate all nine seats of the council or all six seats of the committee.
In the 1999 City Council race, Ken Reeves was the only African-American running. Under the choice voting system, he was the 8th candidate elected, out of nine seats to be filled. He was 314 votes ahead of the candidate defeated in the final round, which is a sizeable margin at that point in the race. However, under a simulated traditional at-large, winner-take-all election (where all 9 ranks are weighted as equal votes) Reeves drops to 9th place and is only 45 votes away from being defeated. A change of 23 voters would cause Reeves to lose in that election. Under the traditional system, voters can hurt their favorite candidate by voting for others, but under Choice Voting, voters can safely rank their votes without endangering their favorites. Hence, in 1999 Reeves initially started with only 1,141 1st choice votes, but needed 1,713 to win. After eliminating weaker candidates and transferring their next best preferences, Reeves finally crossed the threshold needed to win. In traditional elections winner-take-all elections, you can hurt your candidates by voting for others, so there is incentive to vote for only one person. The zero-sum nature of the traditional system discourages coalition building and creates an adversarial process. Hence, even in if there is only one African-American candidate running in a nine-member race, winner-take-all makes it harder for he or she to win.
An even more telling example though lies in the 2001 school committee race. Here, there were two African-American candidates: Alan Price and Richard Harding. Under the Choice Voting method, Price and Harding were elected 5th and 6th, in the race for six seats. However, if we simulate a traditional winner-take-all election, where the rankings are weighted as equal votes, Harding comes in 6th place and is barely elected, with Price losing the election and coming in 7th. This reveals the negative elements of winner-take-all elections in two aspects. The higher threshold in that form of election makes it harder for minorities to win seats, and it could end up pitting African-American candidates against each other, as they must fight for the same voters. Under Choice Voting though, Harding and Price ran on the same slate and could help each other win.
Also, under Choice Voting, African-Americans, while only 10% of the population, can more safely field more than one candidate, as the election system encourages coalition-building. In 2001 Simmons and Reeves both needed crossover votes from other candidates and were able to build this support through similar ideals, slate endorsements, or other forms of networking, and thereby build on their African-American voting vase. Simmons, in fact, got a sizeable amount of support through defeated, white, non-CCA candidates. Likewise, under a Choice Voting system it is not in the candidates’ interest to run “against” the other candidates, as they must often rely upon receiving 2nd, 3rd, and 4th choice votes in order to get elected. As a result, negative campaigning is almost non-existent in Cambridge elections. The candidates are more respectful of each other, realizing that they might need the support of each other’s voters. In addition, voter turnout in Cambridge elections is significantly higher than in comparable cities, such as Lowell, and even in nearby Boston. Cambridge does not even have a mayoral election, which boosts turnout in Boston city elections, yet still does better. Cambridge’s turnout can be attributed at least in part to the proportional representation system, which allows minorities that would otherwise be unable to elect a member to do so.
In this situation too, supermajority single-member districts would not be feasible, as the African-American population is geographically dispersed, with small concentrations in the eastern part of the city and in the western part of the city. In fact, Choice Voting allows African-American voters (or any political group) of much smaller percentages than exist in supermajority districts to elect a candidate of their choice, despite their dispersion. For example, in 1999 school committee candidate Richard Harding was largely supported by African-Americans and was able to get over 50% of his 1st choice votes from only 8 of the city’s 42 precincts. While some may see this as a negative aspect in terms of creating de facto districts, this is mitigated by the fact that despite campaigns that are often based on targeting certain neighborhoods, candidates usually try to reach out to larger bases, in order to try and capture some of the voters’ next best preferences. Certain candidates then, will enjoy great citywide support, while others may be supported by smaller pockets of voters, but in the end greater opportunities for a diversity of representatives are created. This is certainly more representative than a district-based system, which will still leave 49% of voters in each district without a representative, or an at-large winner-take-all system which can do the same thing citywide. Instead, Choice Voting allows Cambridge voters to coalesce along various lines of interest.
Others still, will complain that Cambridge candidates are forced to spend a great deal of money on their elections, as they must run citywide. However, as explained above, many candidates choose to focus on different regions of the city, and in fact the high cost of Cambridge elections is explained by other factors. According to one Massachusetts voting expert, Cambridge elections are pretty costly because there is a lot of money there and a lot of donors. Apparently Cambridge has one of the larger political donor bases, so it would have expensive elections regardless of the method of election. A comparable town, like Lowell, Massachusetts, would have cheaper elections. This difference is due to tremendous disparities in socioeconomic status and local civic engagement, Cambridge obviously having a wealthier and more engaged citizenry. Money is not always decisive in Cambridge elections, as the candidates that do the best are not necessarily the ones who spend the most money. For example, in the 1997 school committee elections, Denise Simmons spent $15,204.93 and received 2,043 1st choice votes. This is a cost of $7.44 per vote. Meanwhile, Fred Fantini spent a total of $1,155.25 and received 1,781 1st choice votes, at a cost of $0.65 per vote. Simmons spent more than eleven times as much as Fantini did for her first choice votes. Granted, Fantini eventually lost the election, but Simmons came in third place out of the six winners. The first place winner, Alice Turkel received more 1st choice votes than Simmons, but Simmons spent nearly three times as much money per vote. The same patterns appeared in the city council races that year.