Wednesday, November 14, 2001     

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November 13, 2001

Your every-number vote counts

One of the City Council candidates, John Pitkin, approached me at a Danehy Park event in September. His literature had the usual "Vote #1" on it. I wondered, "Why don’t any of you ask for the #2 vote? Asking for #1 sounds so greedy." He replied disdainfully, "You have to get number-one votes to win," losing my vote on the spot. I think I understand Cambridge’s "proportional representation" voting method — now with the votes in, I can demonstrate that Pitkin was wrong. "P.R." is a good voting system, even if most people don’t quite understand the details, and every vote counts, even number-twos and beyond.

Here’s a summary of how P.R. works. First, you tally up the number of valid votes, and set a "quota" of how many votes are needed to get elected — this year, that was 1,713 votes. Any candidate who got 1,713 or more number-one votes was elected on the "First Count." That applied to three candidates, Mayor Galluccio, incumbent Henrietta Davis and newcomer Brian Murphy. Their votes over 1,713 are then distributed to the number-two selection — 1,520 "surplus" votes from the three immediate winners this year. Next, any candidates who don’t have 50 votes are declared "defeated," and their votes are distributed to the next-ranked person on their ballots. This year, 31 votes from the "under-50" candidates were distributed. If the distributed votes result in a candidate exceeding their quota, they are declared elected, and their further votes are distributed to the next-ranked candidate. Then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is declared defeated, and those votes distributed. The process repeats until there are nine winners. That took 14 "counts" this year, which means 14 rounds of distributing votes from winners’ surpluses or defeated candidate’s votes.

That’s a pretty complicated system, but nowadays it’s all done by computer, so we no longer have the long delays from people doing the tallying. P.R. has been in place since 1941, and it survived five referendum votes in the 1950s and 1960s, so we’re stuck with it. The main argument against P.R. — that it required a long time to count ballots — has become moot thanks to computerization. The other argument against it — that the "lottery" discounts number-two votes — is demonstrably false.

How do the number-two and number-three votes get counted? If you voted for Galluccio number-one and then David Maher number-two, Maher would immediately get your vote since Galluccio won on the first count — Maher got 379 votes that way. Actually, Maher would only have a chance of getting your number-two vote, since there’s a random selection of which of Galluccio’s votes are counted as "surplus" — that’s why people complain about the "lottery" component. Sure, it’s possible that one candidate will benefit disproportionately, but not likely, and "random" means "fair." If you voted for Galluccio number-one, Davis number-two, and Maher number-three, then Maher would still get your vote, since Davis had already met her quota on the first count.

How do the votes past number-three get counted? In each "count," the candidate with the lowest number of votes is declared defeated. This year, the first over-50 candidate to be defeated was James Williamson, and his 62 votes were then distributed. On ballots where the number-two vote was one of the three immediate winners, the vote went to the number-three or number-four candidate in sequence. As more candidates were elected or defeated, the votes get distributed to the number-five and six candidates. Ethridge King was defeated on the 12th count, and when those votes were distributed among the three remaining candidates, two made it over quota and one, John Pitkin, was defeated. If Pitkin had more number-six votes, when the number-one through five votes had gone to candidates already elected or defeated, he could’ve won. In fact, more number-12 votes would have been enough to push him over the edge — all that mattered in the 13th count was whether Pitkin or Maher (the last candidate elected) was ranked higher on the selected ballots.

What about "bulleting?" People think it’s a mark of true support for a candidate to vote only for that candidate as number-one, and then for no other candidates. That’s pointless under proportional representation. Your number-one candidate gets your vote no matter what, until she is elected or defeated. If your ballot has no other votes when your candidate’s fate is decided, it is declared "exhausted" and the next random ballot takes its place. Your additional votes can only help other candidates — they can’t hurt your number-one choice.

Back in Danehy Park, John Pitkin meant that he needed a minimum number of number-one votes to stay in the running. You do have to avoid the "under-50" defeat, but those 50 can be either number-one or two votes from popular candidates who win on the first count. Pitkin got 48 votes as number-two with Galluccio as number-one — all he needed was his own number-one vote and his wife’s, to avoid going "under-50." Not every number-two vote gets counted — but some do, and even some number-14 votes get counted, in the 14th count. Pitkin beat Maher on number-one votes (1,091 to 1,017) but lost because Maher got more number-twos and lower.

What about asking for number-two votes? Candidates benefit from votes in any position on the ballot, if they survive several rounds of counting. Hence the number-two position and all the rest down the line certainly do count. So go out next time and vote all the way down past number nine!

Jesse Gordon holds a Master's in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Watch MetroWest Daily News managing editor Joe Dwinell's live report on WB-56 every Thursday and Friday at 7:45 a.m.

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