May the Man with the Most Votes Win

by David Trumbull

December 6, 2000


Punched chads, hanging chads, dimpled chads--the count of the Florida ballots has dominated news and water bubbler conversation since November 8. Last weekend, at the Hollywood Express video shop near my Central Square home, I sought diversion from election talk with a Shirley Temple movie. But "Dimples" was already checked out, so I missed viewing the future Republican activist and U.S. ambassador dancing and singing her way through that 1936 confection.

Ballots--dimpled, butterfly-shaped, or otherwise--must be counted, and disputes about elections keep many lawyers in business. Until 1997 it routinely took a week to hand count the ballots and declare the nine winners in a Cambridge City Council election. The counting is complex and lengthy even with the new computerized count because of our unique proportional representation (PR) system. In Cambridge you may vote for as many of the candidates as you wish, ranking them in order of preference.

Under PR a candidate needs to reach "quota"--ten percent plus one--of the total number of valid ballots cast. Get as many first choice votes as quota and you win. Also, you cannot get more votes than quota. "Surpluses" (votes in excess of quota) of winners are distributed to other candidates. Then the candidate with the least number of votes is defeated, and his votes are transferred to other candidates. Next the ballots of the next lowest candidate are transferred. And so on. Each time that votes are transferred the remaining candidates pick up votes. Whenever a candidate reaches quota he is elected. This process of "counting out" losers and transferring their ballots continues until nine people are elected.

Maybe someone familiar with Cambridge's bizarre voting system is what they need down in the Sunshine State. As you know, many Beacon Hill politicians, consultants, and Harvard Law School professors are down there. Among the faces in the Boston daily newspapers I recognized--as one experienced in Cambridge PR at its most confusing--Reading, Massachusetts attorney Dennis Newman. Newman is one of Vice President Gore's official count watchers.

In 1993 I managed the City Council bid of James McSweeney. Jim lost. Several months later a councilor left office in the middle of his term. Two candidates awaited the redistribution of Councilor Walsh's ballots to see who would fill the seat--McSweeney, who had 1,861 votes when he was defeated and Galluccio, who counted out at 1,262 votes.

Here's where Cambridge PR elections get weird. Remember, a winning candidate cannot receive more votes than the quota. When Galluccio counted out, Mr. Walsh needed 612 more votes to get to the quota of 2,182. Every Galluccio ballot that also listed Walsh--270 ballots--was transferred to Walsh. When McSweeney counted out, Walsh needed only 274 votes more to win. The bulk of McSweeney's ballots--1,384 ballots, including hundreds of ballots that listed Walsh--were not used. Under Cambridge's PR, with the quota set at ten percent, nine winning candidates, none of whom is allowed to receive more votes than the quota, can, mathematically, at most, use up ninety percent of the ballots. The remaining ballots (never less than ten percent of the total) are not used for electing anyone.

Since Jim was the last candidate defeated, when he counted out nine persons were elected and his votes could only go into that pile of unused ballots. Put another way, had Jim gotten fewer votes than Galluccio then Jim would have won the seat vacated by Council Walsh. But as it was, Jim had more votes than Galluccio, so Galluccio got the council seat.

Dennis Newman, Gore's man in Florida, was hired by Jim to take this anomaly to court. The result? States and communities have widely varying election procedures. Are the rules inconsistent from place to place? Yes. Are the rules occasionally arbitrary and even, on the face, contrary to common sense? Sometimes. Newman lost his case against the Cambridge system that awarded the seat to the man who got fewer votes. Likewise Gore is certain to lose his appeals in Florida. Why? Bush got more votes.

[David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.]