November
13, 2001
By JESSE
GORDON GUEST COLUMNIST
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
numberone 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 numbertwos 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 numberone 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
numbertwo 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 nextranked person on their
ballots. This year, 31 votes from the "under50"
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 nextranked 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 numbertwo votes —
is demonstrably false.
How do the numbertwo and numberthree votes
get counted? If you voted for Galluccio numberone
and then David Maher numbertwo, 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 numbertwo 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
numberone, Davis numbertwo, and Maher numberthree,
then Maher would still get your vote, since Davis
had already met her quota on the first count.
How do the votes past numberthree get counted?
In each "count," the candidate with the lowest
number of votes is declared defeated. This year,
the first over50 candidate to be defeated was
James Williamson, and his 62 votes were then
distributed. On ballots where the numbertwo vote
was one of the three immediate winners, the vote
went to the numberthree or numberfour candidate
in sequence. As more candidates were elected or
defeated, the votes get distributed to the
numberfive 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
numbersix votes, when the numberone through five
votes had gone to candidates already elected or
defeated, he could’ve won. In fact, more number12
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 numberone, and then for no
other candidates. That’s pointless under
proportional representation. Your numberone 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
numberone choice.
Back in Danehy Park, John Pitkin meant that he
needed a minimum number of numberone votes to
stay in the running. You do have to avoid the
"under50" defeat, but those 50 can be either
numberone or two votes from popular candidates
who win on the first count. Pitkin got 48 votes as
numbertwo with Galluccio as numberone — all he
needed was his own numberone vote and his wife’s,
to avoid going "under50." Not every numbertwo
vote gets counted — but some do, and even some
number14 votes get counted, in the 14th count.
Pitkin beat Maher on numberone votes (1,091 to
1,017) but lost because Maher got more numbertwos
and lower.
What about asking for numbertwo votes?
Candidates benefit from votes in any position on
the ballot, if they survive several rounds of
counting. Hence the numbertwo 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.
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