Spotlight: Cambridge

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is used to conduct municipal elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a notable impact on politics and elections. Cambridge uses no wards or districts, and it is spared the expense of administering primary or runoff elections, as the entire election happens on a single ballot. Cambridge regularly elects historically underrepresented candidates to positions on its city council, with more African Americans, women, and other underrepresented groups having the power to elect candidates of choice. In fact, analysis of ballot image data shows that over 99% of voters saw their first, second, or third choice elected to office.

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Cambridge, Massachusetts has used the at-large form of ranked choice voting, an American form of proportional representation, to elect its City Council and School Committee since 1941. Cambridge adopted ranked choice voting at a time when more than two-dozen cities across the United States, including New York, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, used RCV to elect city councils and other positions in local government. Many of the cities that adopted RCV in that era did away with it due to changes in voting technology and the increased ability of racial minorities to get elected under RCV, but the system remains in Cambridge. 

Ranked choice voting allows groups of like-minded voters to elect representatives in proportion to their share of the population, and has ensured fair representation of the city's political and ethnic minority groups for over 70 years. In February 2014, FairVote published a report on the effects this system had on the city's elections in 2013, and an op-ed in the Cambridge Chronicle discussing the use of this form of fair representation voting in the city. 

Representation of People of Color

The use of choice voting in Cambridge, MA has enabled racial 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 population, members of the African-American community have been consistently elected to the city council and school committee. Also as a result of ranked 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.

Women's Representation

The implementation of ranked 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

Cambridge 33% 
Somerville 18%
Medford 29%
Worcester 27%

Voter Satisfaction

Research has shown that ranked choice voting promotes voter satisfaction. Data from Cambridge elections between 1991 and 2009, shows that on over 90% of Cambridge voters elected their 1st or 2nd choice candidates.

Voter Turnout

In national elections, countries employing proportional voting methods have significantly higher voter turnout than countries with winner-take-all election systems. This has led political scientists like Seymour Martin Lipset and Walter Dean Burnham to the conclusion that proportional voting systems encourage greater voter participation. In this blog, George Pillsbury argues that turnout is higher in Cambridge because of voters' increased degree of choice and improved ability to elect candidates of choice.

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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