Adventures in local politics: the ranked-choice roller coaster

What an Election Day it’s been! National politics, of course, continues to be a tire fire, but I got to enjoy some excitement at the local-politics level–in a good way! I feel like I just watched a come-from-behind sports victory.

(A disclaimer: these are only the preliminary election results. Who knows what might change once absentee and auxiliary ballots are in; in the wacky world of ranked-choice voting, a few votes can have a big ripple effect. I just felt the need to recap the ups and downs of the results.)

First, some necessary background information: I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which uses ranked-choice voting. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. When the results are tallied, votes are first distributed to each voter’s first-choice candidate. Anyone who exceeds a certain vote quota is immediately elected; above that number, any further votes for that candidate are distributed to the voter’s next available choice. Then one by one, candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to the next available candidate on each ballot. This continues until all seats have been filled. In the case of the city council, there are nine seats available.

The top issue for Cambridge voters is affordable housing. I support the plan put forward by the political action group A Better Cambridge Action Fund (ABC AF), but currently only five of the sitting city councillors are in favor, and apparently six are needed to get anything done. ABC AF has endorsed nine candidates, and needs at least six to be elected.

Now, fast-forward to round 13 of the vote-tallying. Two of the three councillors elected so far are ABC AF’s candidates. We’re now down to eight candidates competing for six seats, with five ABC AF candidates left in the mix. We need at least four of the five to be elected. Unfortunately, the candidate with the fewest votes now is the ABC AF-endorsed Burhan Azeem, so he’s eliminated. And the two next-lowest are fellow ABC AF candidates Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler and Alanna Mallon, so one of them is probably next. It’s not looking good.

But! Remember what happens when a candidate is eliminated? Their votes go to the voter’s next choice.

It turns out that supporters of ABC AF candidates tend to overlap… so Burhan’s votes go primarily to Jivan and Alanna! In round 14, thanks to Burhan’s redistributed votes, Jivan and Alanna both leapfrog to the top of the pack and are immediately elected. With fellow ABC AF candidate Marc McGovern also making his quota in this round, the count of ABC AF candidates elected rises to 5.

With Jivan and Alanna safely elected, the lowest vote total now belongs to non-ABC AF candidate Craig Kelley. He becomes the last candidate eliminated, guaranteeing a seat to ABC AF-endorsed Tim Toomey. And… that’s six! We did it!

I don’t know if this sounds as exciting when told secondhand. The vote tables I linked to probably don’t look all that exciting, without the context. Plus, you know, who knows how the affordable housing plan will actually turn out. But it was nice, for once in the past three years, to be excited about politics and feel like we won something.

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