Cambridge, Massachusetts uses choice voting, also known as STV or the single transferable vote to elect its city government and school board. This voting system is a non-winner-takes-all method of proportional representation, which allows all groups to win fair representation in proportion to their share of the population. Cambridge holds the distinction of being the only jurisdiction in the United States that still uses a choice voting system.
In a choice system, the voter ranks the candidates in their order of preference. Voters can rank as few or as many candidates as they wish, knowing that a lower choice will never count against the chances of a higher choice. Contrary to what some critics have speculated, choice voting has not proved too complicated for voters.To count the votes, a "winning threshold" (the minimum number of votes needed to win a seat) is calculated and used to determine winners. Votes candidates achieve above the threshold are transferred to help other candidates, and candidates with little support are eliminated, and their votes transferred to more viable candidates.
The use of choice voting in Cambridge, MA has enabled minorities to better succeed in local elections by lowering the threshold for election. Since 1980, when the African-American population crossed 10% of the town's total, the amount needed to guarantee a council representative, members of the African-American community have been consistently elected to the city council and school committee. Also, as a result of choice voting and its promotion of coalition-building, although only 10% of the population, in recent years African-Americans have been able to hold more than one seat on each board at time.
The implementation of choice voting has allowed women to achieve much greater representation in Cambridge than in other methods of election. Between 1997 and 2001, the City Council and School Committee had female representation between 1/3 and 2/3 of each body.
Representation of women in 4 Massachusetts City Councils in 2008
% women in City Council
Research has shown that proportional representation promotes voter satisfaction. Data from Cambridge elections between 1991 and 2009, which were all run according to the principles of PR, shows that on average over 90% of Cambridge voters elected their 1st or 2nd choice candidates.
In national elections, countries employing proportional voting methods have significantly higher voter turnout than countries with winner-take-all election systems. This has led leading political scientists like Seymour Martin Lipset and Walter Dean Burnham to the conclusion that proportional voting systems encourage greater voter participation. In this article, George Pillsbury argues that turnout is higher in Cambridge because of voters' increased degree of choice and improved ability to elect candidates of choice.
A study by FairVote-the Center for Voting and Democracy indicates that Cambridge and other cities that adopt preference voting will never again be forced to count ballots by hand. A city may choose to conduct the count by hand, but with computer technology, the study conclusively demonstrates that it is entirely feasible and affordable to conduct a count by computer.