Cambridge Municipal Elections

Click Here for November 5, 2019 Municipal Election Information

Cambridge City Charter (Plan E)

Plan E is a City Manager form of government with nine Councillors and six School Committee members elected at large by Proportional Representation (PR) for a two year term. After members of the Council take the oath of office in January, they elect one of the nine to serve as Mayor.

The City Council is the lawmaking body, appointing a City Manager, City Clerk, and City Auditor.

The City Manager is the chief administrative officer of the city carrying out policies of the City Council for an indefinite term.

The Mayor is the official head of the city for all ceremonial purposes, the presiding officer of the Council when it is in session, and the chairman of the school Committee.

Plan E Charter (PDF)

Running for City Council or School Committee

Municipal elections are held in November in odd-numbered years.  The requirements to run for School Committee or City Council are:

  1. The person must be a registered voter in Cambridge.  To register, one must be 18 years of age by Election Day, a U.S. citizen, and a resident in the City of Cambridge.
  2. The person must file no fewer than fifty (50) and no more than one hundred (100) certifiable signatures of registered voters in the City of Cambridge. 

The Election Commission office provides candidate kits that include nomination papers, important dates, Commission policies, services and publications at the beginning of July.  Nomination papers are usually due back at the end of July.

How to Vote in a Proportional Representation Election

Proportional Representation (PR) is the method by which voters in Cambridge elect members of the City Council and School Committee. It ensures minority representation with majority control. Any group of voters that number more than one-tenth of the votes cast can be sure of electing at least one member of a nine-member Council, but a majority group of voters can be sure of electing a majority of the Council.

In a PR election you may vote for as many of the candidates listed on the ballot as you wish, but you must rank the candidates in order of preference. 

The PR ballot lists candidates with numbered ovals next to their names.  Mark your choices by filling in the numbered ovals only. Fill in the number one (1) oval next to your first choice; Fill in the number two (2) oval next to your second choice; Fill in the number three (3) oval next to your third choice, and so on. You may fill in as many choices as you please.  

Example: Correct Marking 

Ballot with Valid Markings

Example: Incorrect Markings

 Filling in more than one choice for a candidateGiving more than one candidate the same rankingOvals that are not filled in completely and cannot be read by the machine

How the Ballots are Counted

The count begins with the sorting of ballots by the first preference shown on each valid ballot. That is the NUMBER 1 vote on each ballot. This is generally known as the "First Count".

Any candidates who reach the necessary quota with Number 1 votes are declared elected. Any extra ballots they receive beyond the quota are redistributed to the candidates marked next in preference (the number 2 preference) on those excess ballots. (See Transferring the Surplus below)

The count continues with the elimination of those candidates receiving fewer than fifty votes in the first count. Their ballots are redistributed to the other candidates according to the next preference marked.

After each distribution, the candidate now having the lowest number of votes is eliminated and his/her ballots redistributed to the next indicated preference (number 2,3,4 etc.)

As candidates reach the quota through the addition of redistributed ballots to their totals, they are declared elected and no further ballots are transferred to them.

This process continues until all candidates have been eliminated except the nine winners for City Council or the six winners for School Committee.

Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 54A (PDF)

The Computerized Tabulation Process

The First Step

On election night at the central tabulation center, the memory card from each precinct’s ballot box is entered into a computer. This computer takes the records of each ballot from the memory card and sorts them by precinct into separate files, one each for City Council, School Committee, and ballot question (if any). The complete ballot files for each race or question are then copied onto a computer disk. Each ballot record consists of the candidates selected by the voter and the order in which they were ranked.

The Second Step

The computer disk with the ballot files is installed in a second computer. This computer contains the software which counts the ballots. The software has been programmed to follow the "Cambridge Rules," as documented in M.G.L. Chapter 54A and in the Cincinnati Code - Article IX of 1938. By computer, the same process formerly carried out manually by more than a hundred counters over the course of a week is conducted in a matter of seconds by the electronic sorting, counting, and transfer of votes.

Election Results

An "unofficial first count" of number one (#1) votes for each candidate for City Council and School Committee will be available on election night within minutes of receipt of the memory card from the last reporting precinct. This count is referred to as "unofficial" because it does not contain all ballots. For example, it does not yet include write-ins or ballots marked in a way that could not be read by the scanner at the precinct level. Those votes will be individually added to those already scanned on the day after the election. In addition, overseas absentee ballots that arrive after election day and provisional ballots are not counted until 10 days after the election.  Only when this last step is completed will all valid ballots have been recorded.

The complete ballot records are then copied and read into the tabulation software where they are tallied. The software produces an "official first count" and then proceeds to distribute surplus and eliminate candidates with the least number of votes until all seats have been filled. The Election Commissioners declare the results.


Tips and FAQs

How a PR Quota System Works

Proportional representation or PR is the form of voting used by Cambridge under the Plan E form of government. Under PR a candidate needs to win a certain proportion of the votes to be elected. This winning fraction of the votes is referred to as the "quota".

The quota is determined by dividing the total number of valid ballots cast by the number of positions to be elected plus one and then adding one to the resulting dividend.

Thus, to elect 9 City Councillors, the total number of valid ballots cast is divided by 10; to elect 6 School Committee members, the total is divided by seven. And in both cases 1 is added to the result of the division.

For example, if 25,000 valid ballots are cast for City Council, the quota will be 2,501 (25,000 divided by ten, plus 1).

Transferring the Surplus

The technique used by Cambridge for selecting ballots to transfer from a candidate’s surplus to bring the candidate down to quota is called the Cincinnati Method. The method is as follows: the ballots of the candidate who has surplus are numbered sequentially in the order in which they have been counted (that is, in the sequence dictated by the random draw of precincts) and then every nth ballot is drawn and transferred to a continuing candidate until the original candidate is credited with ballots equaling no more than quota. n is nearest whole number computed by the formula

N equals the Candidate's Total Ballot divided by the Surplus.

A ballot selected by this method that does not show a preference for a continuing candidate is skipped and remains with the original candidate. If not enough ballots are removed when ballots n, 2n, 3n, .... have been transferred, the sequence starts again with n+1, 2n+1, 3n+1, ....

Plan E Charter History

On June 1, 1938, Massachusetts Governor Charles F. Hurley signed a bill adding a fifth city charter form (Plan E) to the four plans already available. Modeled after a charter successful in Cincinnati, Plan E provided for a city manager form of government with proportional representation (PR) elections.

As soon as the bill became law, a group of citizens formed the Cambridge Committee for Plan E and obtained the necessary signatures on a petition to put the question of adopting Plan E on the Cambridge ballot in November 1938.

In the ensuing campaign, Plan E advocates said it would mean that a trained administrator and not a politician would run the city. Of PR voting, they said it would guarantee majority rule and at the same time give minority groups representation in proportion to their actual strength.

Opponents centered much of their fire on the PR voting system, which they said would excite group prejudices and make voting a lottery. They also said the plan would be too expensive and would give too much power to the City Council.

Emotions ran high and on that election day in 1938, Plan E was defeated by 1,767 votes. Two years later, it was adopted by 7,552 votes, with a winning margin in eight of the city's eleven wards. The first PR election was held in 1941 with the first Plan E government taking office in January 1942. Since then, there have been five referenda—in 1952, 1953, 1957, 1961, and 1965—on whether to repeal or retain the PR voting system. Each time the vote was to retain it.

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