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Boston Faces an Unnecessary Costly Election

by Dan Tessler // Published July 6, 2007
According to an article published July 2 in the Boston Globe, a preliminary election will be required to narrow the field of candidates for Boston's at-large City Council seats from nine people to eight. Conducting this election will cost the city at least half a million dollars in order to narrow the candidate pool by one to reach the legal maximum:
Conducting a citywide election costs $500,000 to $750,000, according to election officials. About 340,000 ballots would have to be printed, at about 20 cents each, and detail police officers and poll workers would have to staff all 254 precincts.

"The law requires us to do it," said Geraldine Cuddyer, Boston's election commissioner. "So we'll just have to do it."

So what is the obvious solution? Change the law. One needs to only look across the Charles River at Boston's close neighboring city of Cambridge in order to find a voting system that not only requires no expensive primary elections, but results in a Council that is more democratic and more representative of its electorate, the people of Boston. Cambridge has been using the choice voting system (also known as the "single transferable vote" or "preference voting" in some locations) ever since it was adopted by the city in 1941.

Under choice voting, voters are able to maximize the effectiveness of their votes by ranking candidates in order of preference. It ensures that as many people as possible end up casting their vote for a winning candidate, but never for a candidate they could not support, as the voter is not required to rank all of the candidates on the ballot. Choice voting also allows a group of like-minded voters to win their fair and representative share of seats.

In Boston's case, choice voting would help in that it eliminates the need for runoff or primary elections, as the field of Council seat hopefuls would be narrowed automatically through the vote-counting process. Once a candidate reaches the threshold of votes necessary to win, his or her surplus votes are transferred to the remaining candidates. In the most precise and fair method of choice voting, all of the winning candidate's ballots would be transferred at an equally reduced rate. As candidates are eliminated, their ballots are transferred to the other candidates according to the voters' expressed preferences. This preference transfer effectively eliminates the spoiler problem.

Under the current system, however, some in Boston are saying one candidate should voluntarily drop out of the race:

Political observers point to four long-shot candidates, saying one of them should drop out to save the city the expense. But those candidates, who submitted the 500 signatures necessary to appear on the ballot, say they are exercising their democratic right to run for office and have no intention of dropping out by tomorrow's 5 p.m. deadline.

"I've been trying for 10 years to get on the ballot," said David James Wyatt, a 53-year-old Roxbury resident who since 1997 has tried to run for mayor and City Council but until this year had never cleared the signature threshold. "I'm not going to pull out now."

Choice voting would allow everyone to be satisfied. The city would have up to an extra $750,000 it didn't have to spend, all the candidates would be able to exercise their rights, and the people would be given more of a choice in who will end up as their representative on the Boston City Council.