Cambridge, Massachusetts Elections a Model for America

by Andrew Douglas // Published November 1, 2013


When voters head to the polls in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Tuesday, they will participate in the nation's most advanced electoral system. Cambridge is the only municipality in the nation to elect its city council using the at-large form of ranked choice voting, a method that improves representation by allowing voters to elect candidates of choice in proportion to their share of the electorate.

While ranked choice voting (often referred to as instant runoff voting when used in single-winner elections) is used to elect mayors and other single office holders in a number of municipalities across the United States, only Cambridge uses ranked choice voting in multi-member districts to elect its city Council (the system is also used to elect some Minneapolis, Minnesota municipal boards).  This system allows for fair representation of racial, political, and other minority groups that are often underrepresented by single-seat, winner-take-all elections.

Though ranked choice voting is an advanced system in comparison to the antiquated and less representative methods used in most American elections, it is no recent invention.  It has a long history of use around the world and has been in place for both City Council and School Committee elections in Cambridge since 1941. That history clearly demonstrates its superiority over winner-take-all.

Ranked choice voting has enabled African Americans to have a consistent presence on both the Cambridge City Council and School Committee. They have won representation on both in nearly every election since the 1970s, despite the fact that African Americans make up just 12% of the city's population.  In recent years there have often been multiple African Americans serving on the two bodies, as is the case currently.  This is possible because of the low threshold for election in ranked choice voting elections.  In Cambridge, support from just 10% of voters is enough to earn one of the nine seats on the City Council, and 14% is enough for one of the six seats on the School Committee. It would be much more difficult for African Americans in Cambridge to consistently achieve representation in city government under a winner-take-all system that requires candidates to earn the plurality of votes in a district in order to be elected.

Cambridge has also seen excellent representation of other minority groups. Women have been well-represented on both the City Council and School Committee, and three of the last four mayors have been gay (the Cambridge mayor is elected from the members of the City Council).

In addition to lowering barriers to political participation for minority groups, ranked choice voting also prevents so-called "spoiler" candidates from impacting the outcome of elections. Excess votes from candidates who pass the threshold for election and votes for candidates with the least support are transferred to their voters' subsequent choices after each round of tabulation.  These transfers are what allowed Leland Cheung to become Cambridge's youngest ever and first Asian American City Councilman in 2009.  Cheung did not place among the top nine candidates in first choice rankings, but ultimately gained enough support through vote transfers to win election.

Choice voting also leads to higher levels of voter satisfaction, due to its ability to allow large majorities of voters to elect a candidate of choice.  In Cambridge elections between 1991 and 2009, an average of over 90% of voters were able to help elect a first or second choice candidate.

This year's election will see at least two new faces reach the council, as incumbent mayor Henrietta Davis and Councilwoman Marjorie Decker will not seek re-election.  With twenty five candidates competing for the nine seats, competition is likely to be stiff, but Cambridge's use of ranked choice voting means that negative campaigning is unlikely.  Ranked choice voting improves the tenor of campaigns by disincentivizing contentious campaigns and partisan attacks. Office-seekers are better served by reaching out to opposing political groups in hopes of gaining second or third place rankings than by vilifying them or their preferred candidates.

Cambridge's ranked choice voting system ensures that no matter who wins Tuesday's elections for City Council and School Committee, these bodies will accurately reflect the wishes of the city's voters.  That is one reason why FairVote advocates for a ranked choice voting system for the election of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Americans would be well served to look at Cambridge city elections as an example of how better electoral systems can lead to better outcomes for all voters.