Minority Representation in Cambridge

Background Information

  • Cambridge has a 9-member City Council – The threshold for election is 10% of the vote.
  • Cambridge has a 6-member School Committee – The threshold for election is 14% of the vote.
  • Even with the thresholds above, African-Americans have been able to elect representatives to both bodies in almost every election in the 1960’s and 1970’s – with between 5-10% of the total population. Hence, African-Americans held a higher percentage of political seats than their proportion of the total population.
  • Once African-Americans crossed over 10% of the Voting Age Population in 1980, they have always had representation on both bodies, sometimes even with two representatives on a body (1971: two city councilors, 1993 & 1997: two school committee members, 2001: two city councilors & two school committee members).
  • RCV has allowed women to achieve much greater representation than in other methods of election. Between 1997 and 2001, women represented between 1/3 and 2/3 of the councilors and committee members on both the City Council and School Committee.
  • RCV has survived legal challenges, most recently in 1996. The Supreme Court of Massachusetts deemed RCV to be constitutional. Note though, that the legislature has repealed the Plan E form of PR government, with Cambridge made an exception. Other municipalities may not now switch to this form of RCV. There have also been 5 referenda to repeal RCV, but they all failed.

Racially Cohesive Voting

  • Voters in Cambridge tend to vote along racial lines (a common element of voting in the U.S.). Despite the existence of political “slate” endorsements, African-American candidates on different slates will all receive support from African-American voters. In 2001, Denise Simmons and Ken Reeves’ 1st choice voters most often put the other candidate as their 2nd choice.
  • Precincts with high African-American populations also gave the most support to African-American candidates. In 2001, Ward 2/Precinct 1 overwhelmingly gave its 1st choice votes to the African-American candidates for City Council and School Committee. This pattern appeared throughout the city.
  • This cohesive voting allowed Simmons and Reeves to both be elected in 2001, as Ethridge King, a third African-American candidate, transferred enough votes to the other two, to elect them.

Ranked Choice Voting versus Winner-Take-All

With RCV, in 2001 Harding and Price (both African-American candidates) were both elected to the school committee. Under a simulated winner-take-all election, Price would lose. In 1999, Ken Reeves (the only African-American candidate) won a city council seat with a margin of 314, due in part to transferred support from losing candidates. Under a simulated winner-take-all election, his lead shrinks to 45 votes, so that a change in 23 votes would cause him to lose.

For more on Minority Representation in Cambridge Elections, read this series of blog posts:


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