Preference Voting and Voter Turnout: The Case of Cambridge, MA

Preference Voting and Voter Turnout: The Case of Cambridge, MA

George Pillsbury

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. Turnout is higher because of voters' increased choice and ability to elect candidates of choice.

To study how this proposition translates to local elections, I compared voter turnout in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- the only city in the United States to use preference voting for all municipal elections -- to turnout in three other Massachusetts cities with similar demographics and types of municipal elections: Somerville, Medford and Worcester. The results support the idea that proportional voting tends to encourage greater voter participation.

The main result showed that Cambridge had the "least decline" in both voter turnout and voter registration during a time when voter turnout has fallen precipitously in all Massachusetts and U.S. elections.

Cambridge ended the study about 10 percentage points above the other 3 cities despite the fact that all other 3 cities had strong mayors compared to Cambridge's Plan E city manager form of government and that turnout is ordinarily higher in municipal elections with mayoral contests.

During the early part of the study, voter turnout was similar in all four cities -- in part due to strong Democratic, ethnic, patronage political participation structures in all four cities typical of Massachusetts politics at the time. In the 1970s, as political parties and traditional "machine" politics declined, turnout fell sharply in the other 3 cities (although less quickly in one city, Somerville, because of some strongly contested mayoral races in the 1970s).

Background on Cities:
Form of Government: For most of the period studied, Cambridge, Medford and Worcester used a city manager/city council form of government; Medford and Worcester changed to a stronger mayor in 1987. Somerville had a strong mayor and a city council elected from districts and at-large.

Voter Turnout in
4 Massachusetts Cities
(Percent of Registered Voters)

Chart 1
Average Turnout Over 3 Decades

                        1961-1969     1971-1979     1981-1993
Cambridge    67%                 59%                 54%
Somerville     68%                 64%                 46%
Medford          59%                 55%                 44%
Worcester      64%                 51%                 45%

Chart 2
Decline in Registered Voters
Between the years 1961 and 1991

                          1961         1991         Decline
Cambridge     49,387      44,794        9.3%
Somerville      47,328      39,546      16.4%
Medford           35,232      31,698      10.0%
Worcester       95,062      69,583      26.8%

Demographics: Cambridge and Somerville are the most similar of the four cities. Medford is slighter higher income and Worcester has become, during the period, slightly lower income.

Impact of Elected Mayor: Elections for a strong mayor generally produce more turnout than an election for a city council, especially in a competitive mayoral election. The figures in this study support this. In Somerville the turnout averaged 69% in the 5 elections where new mayors were elected between 1961-1981. Worcester and Medford both had a more than 10% boost in turnout in 1987, the first year they both had a popularly elected mayor, though turnout declined afterwards.

The main result showed that Cambridge had the "least decline" in both voter turnout and voter registration during a time when voter turnout has fallen precipitously in all Massachusetts and U.S. elections.

Political History: Cambridge, Somerville and Worcester all had strong ethnic political patronage machines in the 1950s through the 1970s. During the 1970s, like elsewhere, these machines went into decline. At least one factor in this decline was simply the changing demographics, as each city received an increasing number of racial minorities and new immigrants. These patronage and ethnic based political networks likely played a positive role in voter turnout in the 1950s and 1960s.

Cambridge vs. Somerville
Somerville's strong mayor elections helped produce marginally higher turnouts than Cambridge's weak mayor elections in the early part of the study from 1955-1981: Somerville's average was about 67% and Cambridge's about 64%. Somerville's turnout was especially high when a new mayor was elected, as noted above.

Cambridge moved ahead of Somerville in the 1981-1993 period with an average turnout of 54% compared to a 46% average for Somerville. The question, then, is what factors made Cambridge's turnout competitive with Somerville in the early part of the study and move well ahead in the last 7 elections -- even though Somerville has a turnout advantage in its strong mayor form of government. Cambridge's preference voting system almost certainly was a factor.

Cambridge vs. Medford and Worcester
Since 1960, Cambridge's turnouts have been higher than those of Medford and Worcester, two cities with similar demographics and forms of government. The gap has been increasing.

The sustained and quantitatively higher difference gives clearer evidence that Cambridge's preference voting system gives it an advantage. The difference cannot be explained in terms of demographic factors because Medford voters have remained wealthier. Also, as Medford's voting in even-year federal elections is more consistently similar to that of Cambridge, greater voter apathy cannot be considered a factor either.

This analysis is only preliminary and in part demonstrates how difficult it is to isolate one factor in the decline of voter turnout since the 1960s. However, the evidence certainly points to preference voting providing more of an incentive for voters to participate than plurality elections.

George Pillsbury is a Board member of The Center for Voting and Democracy. He is a 1994 graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where this article was written.