Race and Representation: Cambridge Elections

Race and Cambridge Elections

Background Information

  • Cambridge has a 9-member City Council – The PR threshold is 10%.
  • Cambridge has a 6-member School Committee – The PR threshold is 14%.
  • 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).
  • PR 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.
  • Choice Voting has survived legal challenges, most recently in 1996. The Supreme Court of Massachusetts deemed Choice Voting to be constitutionally valid. Note though, that the legislature has repealed the Plan E form of PR government, with Cambridge made an exception.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 Choice Voting. There have also been 5 referenda to repeal Choice Voting, but they all failed.


Racially Cohesive Voting

  • African-American voters in Cambridge tend to vote along racial lines (as do other groups, such as Italian-Americans). 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.


Choice Voting vs. Traditional Voting

With Choice Voting, in 2001 Harding and Price (two African-Americans) 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.