Ranked Choice Voting in Cambridge, MA

Thanks to Maine’s adoption of ranked choice voting (RCV) in 2016, the congressional representative for Cambridge, Jared Golden, emerged victorious in 2018 after an extensive counting process.  Though it may have taken about two weeks for the results to be certified, the process was nonetheless straightforward.  Voters could rank their votes and Rep. Golden, who didn’t receive enough votes to win in the first round, picked up second- and third-choice rankings of independent candidates who were eliminated in the tallying process.  It was contentious, but tidy, and a good example of why RCV is sometimes called instant-runoff voting.

2019 BallotWe, the residents of Cambridge, MA, also use ranked choice voting in our municipal elections, and we’re gearing up to vote on Tuesday for City Council and School Committee.  There are six at-large School Committee seats, and 11 candidates, including three incumbents, are running.  The City Council is made up of nine at-large councillors, and there are 22 candidates, including eight incumbents.  I have a pile of flyers on my counter, as high as you’d expect from a total of 33 candidates.  We don’t vote directly for mayor, who will instead be chosen by the city councillors from among their ranks.  The mayor also chairs the School Committee.

A person could decide to vote for only one candidate in each race, but why limit one’s self?  We have the option of ranking each of the candidates, with a cap of 15 selections.

The big difference between what we’re doing and what happened (and will be the system from now on) in Maine, is that we’re voting our preferences for all nine city councillors (or six School Committee members) on the same ballot.  While I’ll carefully make my selections for numbers one through however many, the truth is that I can only be absolutely sure that my number one vote will count.

RCV video

A current city councillor who has decided not to run for re-election, Jan Devereaux, offers a cute video explanation of the system.  Click here to view itOr read this, instead.  And if you want to know what the actual count looked like in 2017, you’ll find the tally here.  As you’ll see, two councillors surpassed the vote quota of 2253 in the first round; the next didn’t clear until the 15th round; and the Council was finally complete in the 19th round, when all candidates who had received the least votes had been eliminated one-by-one and the last two candidates were selected without meeting the initial quota.  (The PDF was prepared by a local voting guru, who maintains a website filled with all sorts of city governance information.)

This year, a major focus of the candidates has been housing, with subsets of the full 22 forming slates of like-minded fellow aspirants.  The idea is that, regardless of my #1 vote, if enough people join me in voting for all the candidates in a slate, that slate’s views will be well-represented on the council.  There are slates supporting a particular housing plan that was considered this fall, and slates opposing it.  Other issues aren’t getting the attention they might in a different year.

Is Cambridge’s model of RCV a model for the nation, as this commentary from a few years back argues?  I can’t say.  It can be confusing for new residents, of which we have many, but it’s easy enough to get used to.  And there are campaigns to bring ranked choice voting to more elections.  A group is working to put a referendum on RCV on the Massachusetts ballot for 2020.

For now, I believe that Maine and Massachusetts include the only Cambridges that use RCV, but soon, towns and cities throughout Massachusetts and beyond may be offered the option to rank more than one candidate for an elected position.

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