In the early to mid 20th century, some two-dozen cities in ten states adopted ranked choice voting in at-large elections in order to better reflect their voters and promote better governance. Although most repealed the system (largely due to anxieties regarding the election of minority candidates and changes in election machinery), the tradition continues in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In Cambridge, the effort to adopt ranked choice voting was led by members of its African American community. Despite the election of James Lew, the first African American council member, in 1903, the African American community in Cambridge struggled to obtain adequate representation in the first half of the 20th century. It was this need to increase representation for African Americans which prompted Cambridge to adopt ranked choice voting in 1941. Since that time, African Americans – as well as women and other racial minorities – have consistently obtained representation on both the city council and school board.
Ranked choice voting has been well-received by Cambridge voters. As civic activist Rob Winters put it: “Almost all voting Cambridge residents feel that the intent of our election method is a good one . . . they find the act of voting to be simple and easy to understand.” Cambridge voters have rejected attempts to repeal the system on five separate occasions.
Based on Cambridge’s success, other communities in Massachusetts have considered adopting ranked choice voting in recent years and many state organizations have endorsed it as well. Ranked choice voting is used for elections in some of Massachusetts’ universities, including Harvard and MIT. To learn more about at-large ranked choice voting and how it works, see our ranked choice voting page.