Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Proportional Representation: The Real BLUF

In military briefing, there's often a stated desire by the Commander to see the BLUF before all else. So what's the BLUF?

It's the Bottom Line Up Front.

Both at the Gallagher & Cavanaugh presentation some weeks ago, and last night at the LDNA meeting, Dr. Falhberg's explanation of the merits of a weighted, at-large Proportional Representation (PR) system was met with a few cries of "This is too complicated."

Although the way the votes are actually tallied is somewhat complicated (it involves minimum vote thresholds and mathematical voter preference-transferral formulas, which you can read about in Cambridge's city election coverage, if you so desire), the individual voter needs to only understand two things:

(1) Rather than just select up to nine candidates (as under the current system), voters would rank their choices 1-9.

There. That's it. There's nothing complicated about that. We've all been ranking things our entire lives, since we were kids first starting to understand sports, or watching the Miss America pageant on TV, or even trying to figure out what to order from Friendly's. I even cringed a little bit when I heard someone at G & C say "People in Lowell won't understand this." PR systems are used all throughout the world...and even though Cantabrigians may be far more self-important, they're not, by and large, any brighter than Lowellians. I think people here, or anywhere, are quite capable of ordering things from one to nine.

(2) A PR system would mean that a candidate could receive a smaller TOTAL number of votes but still be elected.

This is because of the effect of weighting. The current system means the first nine past the post are the winners, period. The number of votes needed to win is going to change from election to election, but let's assume in 2009 the number will be somewhere in the low four-digit range. In a PR system, that wouldn't necessarily be the case. If a candidate could just pull together a few hundred #1 votes (as is the case in Cambridge, a city with a very similar population size), he or she could win. It would then be easier for a candidate to *just* appeal to a certain group -- be it Back Centralers, UMLers, artists and poets, Cambodian-Americans, or whatever the case may be.

Now, those aren't arguments as to whether PR is *better* than first-nine-past-the-post, either in the way the election is conducted, or, more importantly, on the way it would impact the quality of our local government. They are, however, refutations to the idea that PR is too complicated, or too wacky, to implement.

I was glad to hear Dr. Fahlberg mention this argument against moving to a ward system -- it would create fiefdoms. If you don't believe this, just study the effect of incumbency on American elections at any level. All wards would accomplish, by default, is better neighborhood representation, but it would likely come at the expense of the openness of the body and the competitiveness of the elections.

I also thought it was interesting that Dr. Fahlberg mentioned the candidacy of two mid-twenty-somethings this year. Those candidates, plus Ryan Berard and another whispered candidacy from The Column, would mean an unusually high number of young people this year. Seeing today's NY Times headline today (front left, above the fold) about the way the Obama Presidency is changing African-Americans' views about race relations, among other things, I started wondering this morning if the 2008 Presidential election could lead to an Obama Effect on smaller levels across the nation.

That is, the fact that we have a person of color holding our highest elected office may change the feelings of efficacy towards -- and ownership of -- the political process among historically underrepresented groups (say, young people and people of color). With Obama winning, despite the guffaws of many who said the mythical 'they' wouldn't 'let' it happen (suggesting something both sinister and conspiratorial), the loud, resultant ripple across the political spectrum is that all are welcome to play. That can only be a good thing. Changing the way we elect candidates here is uphill fight, to say the least. A quicker, easier, shorter-term way to ensure more diversity among our elected officials would be to have more candidates of color run.

Heck, we've already seen here on the state level that it can happen. And with a nod to one late, great former Cambridge City Councilor who liked to intone that "All politics is local," we might not even have to look that far for an example of a candidate of color succeeding by running a great race, even in a majority-white constituency.

Yes, Scott Wilson did.


C R Krieger said...

I would still like to hear a discussion of giving each voter nine votes and letting him or her use them as he or she wishes.

That is to say, if you want to vote for Rita Mercier and Rita only, you can give her all nine of your votes.  It you want to give four to Rita and four to Joe Mendonca and pocket the last one, you can.  If you want to spread your nine votes among nine people, you are free to do that.

I am not saying it is better than the currently pitched PR approach.  I just want to have someone discuss the possible variations in outcome.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...


Nice point..I'll have to dust off the Poli Sci textbooks to see where they do that, but I'm sure that's going to affect outcomes in a slightly different way than the ranking would.

If ONE Lowell ends up doing a discussion with the bloggers, we should bring that one into the discussion..