Race in Cambridge's 2001 City Council Elections

Posted on December 16, 2002

Slate Analysis

In Cambridge, voters tend to follow along lines of voting for the progressive Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) slate endorsements or else voting along independent lines. The official CCA candidates in 2001 were Davis, Murphy, Pitkin, Simmons, King, and Pitkin. Decker was not a CCA candidate, but her voters were for the most part. The independent candidates were Galluccio, Maher, Reeves, Sullivan, and Toomey. Note that Reeves is generally seen as a liberal, though he no longer has the endorsement of the CCA.

Following the distribution of 2nd choice votes, several trends emerge. If a white CCA candidate was chosen as a 1st choice, an African-American CCA candidate never received the most or even the 2nd most 2nd choice votes. If a white, independent, non-CCA candidate was chosen as a 1st choice, an African-American non-CCA candidate never received the most or even the 3rd most 2nd choice votes, and an African-American CCA candidate did even worse, garnering not even the 7th most 2nd choice votes.

Further evidence of racially polarized voting lies in the analysis of the two strongest African-American candidates, Denise Simmons and Ken Reeves (as determined by # of 1st choice votes). Simmons was a CCA slate candidate and Reeves was an independent, non-CCA candidate. Simmons voters broke the slate lines to give Reeves the largest percentage of their 2nd choice votes. Likewise, Reeves voters broke slate lines to give Simmons the largest number of 2nd choice votes. So essentially, those voting for white candidates first tended not to vote for African-American candidates of similar politics, but those voting for African-American candidates first tended to vote for other African-American candidates next, regardless of slate endorsements. For example, Simmons received between 12-13% of 2nd choice votes from those voting for white CCA candidates, but received 34.6% of Reeves' 2nd choice votes. Likewise, Reeves received a paltry 3-8% of 2nd choice votes from other non-CCA candidates, but received 20.8% of Simmons' 2nd choice votes. In short, racially cohesive voting was a factor in electing both Simmons and Reeves.

See Table B Below

Under the Choice Voting system, both candidates needed 10% of the vote, 1713 votes in this case, in order to be elected. By the 12th count, out of 14 counts, neither of them had crossed the threshold. However, in the 13th count, a CCA endorsed, weaker African-American candidate, Ethridge King, was eliminated, and transferred enough votes to Simmons to push her over the winning threshold, and transferred 120 of his 587 votes to Reeves - which allowed Reeves to overcome the last remaining challenger in the election, even though Reeves and King were not running on the same slate. In fact, had this been a traditional winner-take-all election, King could have jeopardized the election of Reeves. King received 378 votes, while the margin separating Reeves from election or defeat was only 124 votes. In a traditional election, a stronger King could've sapped more votes from black voters, thus causing Reeves to lose along with him. Choice Voting allowed African-American voters to vote for King without worrying about their vote actually working against them.

Lastly, Reeves was an independent, non-CCA candidate, yet his 1st choice supporters gave King, a CCA candidate, virtually the same percentage of 2nd choice votes as did those voting for CCA candidates first. Specifically, of the voters who chose a CCA-endorsed candidate as their 1st choice, 3.6%-6.1% supported fellow slate-member, King as their next choice. For those voters choosing a white, non-CCA candidate as their first choice, only between 0.4%-2.4% selected King as their 2nd choice. Reeves’ voters though, crossed political lines to vote for King 5.6% of the time, nearly the same percentage as the CCA candidates. Meanwhile, Simmons and Reeves, the two other African-American candidates, had the highest percentages of 2nd choice votes for King.

Anecdotal accounts also indicate that Simmons and Reeves have also translated their support from African-American voters into support for issues of importance to African-Americans. Simmons especially was known for consistent support of African-American educational opportunities during her long tenure on the school committee.

Crossover voting of the type described above has also been seen for other ethnic groups too. For example, in at least one early 1990’s election, the Cambridge Italian-American population gave much support in terms of 1st and 2nd choice votes to two Italian-American candidates, even though they were running on opposing slates.

Table B:
2001 African-American City Council Candidates
(All figures based upon top ten candidates &
includes Decker as CCA)

Denise Simmons (CCA Candidate):
Avg. % of 2nd Choice Votes received from White Ind. Candidates: 3.1%
Avg. % of 2nd Choice Votes received from White CCA Candidates: 12.95%
% of 2nd Choice Votes received from Reeves (Ind.): 34.6%

Kenneth Reeves (independent candidate):
Avg. % of 2nd Choice Votes received from White Ind. Candidates: 4.675%
Avg. % of 2nd Choice Votes Received from White CCA Candidates: 5.075%
% of 2nd Choice Votes received from Simmons (CCA): 20.8%

Ethridge King (CCA Candidate):
Avg. % of 2nd Choice Votes received from White Ind. Candidates: 1.225%
Avg. % of 2nd Choice Votes received from White CCA Candidates: 5.15%
% of 2nd Choice Votes received from Reeves (Ind.): 5.6%
% of 2nd Choice Votes received from Simmons (CCA): 6.1%

2001 School Committee Elections & Race

In the 2001 School Committee Elections, another interesting dynamic appears. Harding was the African-American candidate supported by a large African-American population, while Price was the African-American candidate supported by a large white, liberal population. The largely African-American Harding voters were the most racially cohesive voters, as the largest percentage of their votes were “bullet” votes. 24.2% of Harding voters only voted for Harding, and did not list any 2nd choice votes, despite the fact that Harding was part of the CCA slate, which contained five other candidates. Price, the other African-American candidate, still received the highest amount of 2nd choice votes from Harding voters as their first choice vote. The largely white Price voters, on the other hand, selected the white candidate, Turkel, the most often as their 2nd choice, though Harding still did well. In addition, those voters selecting white CCA candidates as their first choice never gave the most 2nd choice votes to an African-American CCA candidate. In fact, two white CCA candidates only gave between 2.9-4.6% of their 2nd choice votes to Harding. He actually usually did better than this with people running against his slate, as the non-CCA candidates gave Harding between 3.5-11.3% of their 2nd choice votes.

Precinct Analysis

Precinct and ward returns have shown that African-Americans in the city though, do tend to engage in cohesive voting. In the 2001 school committee elections, for example, African-American candidate Richard Harding was elected, with most of his core support of 1st choice votes coming from precincts with strong African-American populations. Ward 2 has a large African-American constituency, and gave 41% of its 1st choice votes to Harding, the largest percentage given to any candidate. The next highest candidate only received 10% of 1st choice votes in the ward. Similarly, in Wards 1, 7, 8, and 9, which have very low African-American populations, Harding’s share of 1st choice votes dropped to 3 or 4%. In fact, this racially cohesive voting spills over to the City Council races too. For example, Harding received the most 1st choice votes in six precincts in the city, and those same six precincts all gave either Simmons or Reeves the most 1st choice votes: W2/P1, W2/P2, W3/P4, W4/P4, W5/P4, and W6/P1. Moreover, in all but one of those precincts, Simmons and Reeves came in 1st and 2nd.

The election of Harding and Price also elucidates yet another point about Choice Voting: this method is not a quota system, as demonstrated by the fact that in 2001 African-Americans held 33% of the school committee seats, while only making up 10% of the voting-age population. Proportional representation, it should be noted, does not limit African-American representation to its percentage of the population.

In 1999, a similar dynamic existed in the school committee elections. There were three African-American candidates: Denise Simmons, Don Harding, and Alvin Thompson. Harding and Thompson were eventually eliminated, but voters for both candidates supported Simmons the most often as their 2nd choice, offering her between 20 and 30% of their second choice votes. Those votes helped propel Simmons to reelection.

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