Ranked choice voting election in Cambridge sees historic surge in turnout

Posted by John Patrick Thomas on November 17, 2017

In the recent, eventful off-year election, the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, took advantage of ranked choice voting to elect their city council and school committee in a historically high turnout election.

While all 11 incumbents maintained their positions in both bodies, the three open seats in the city council were won by Sumbul Siddiqui, the first elected Muslim woman to the city’s council, Quinton Zondervon, an environmental activist who immigrated from Suriname, and Alanna Mallon, the founder of a Cambridge organization for food insecure students. The open seat in the school committee was won by Laurance Kimbrough, a former Cambridge School System employee and the second African American on the committee.

Cambridge’s electoral system, which has been around for more than 75 years, elects its city council and school committee city-wide, using ranked choice voting. The system sanctions candidates to proportionally represent various communities and opinions across the city, rather than just focusing on gaining political support in a single area within Cambridge. By offering more choices and a better opportunity to elect, ranked choice voting paired with proportional representation provides voters more power in their government and an even-greater reason to vote.

On Election Day, Cambridge saw a 16 percent increase from the previous municipal election in 2015. Bucking a consistent trend of relatively low voter totals, the city tallied its highest number of voters since 1991. Election officials counted 21,412 ballots for city council, amounting to a 20 percent increase over the 17,854 votes cast in 2011. Cambridge joined other cities that used ranked choice voting, which also boasted high turnout numbers, including Minneapolis, St. Paul and Takoma Park, Md.

“The beauty of ranked choice voting is that new candidates actually have a shot, because you just need to mobilize and cultivate this essence of collaboration among people,” said Nadya Okamoto, a 2017 Cambridge City Council candidate, in an interview with Representation2020. 

Cambridge’s female candidates, such as Jan Devereux, have supported ranked choice voting and its use in Cambridge. This year, the most women in Cambridge history ran for the city’s council. Now, Cambridge’s City Council is made up of four women and five men, while its school committee consists of four women and two men.

After aging voting machine technology delayed election results, officials in Cambridge expect next municipal cycle to run smoother, because polling places are slated to have new voting machines in place for the 2019 elections.

To learn more about Cambridge's electoral system, check out this report by Boston Local News channel, WBZ, on ranked choice voting.

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