A Better Cambridge’s Statement in Support of At-Large Proportional Representation

ABC strongly opposes transitioning from at-large proportional representation to any ward-based system because of the negative effects on political representation and housing production.


Dear Members of the Cambridge Charter Review Committee,

A Better Cambridge (ABC) recognizes that the charter review is an important opportunity for Cambridge to reassess its system of government. We would first like to express our thanks to the Charter Review Committee (Committee) for its work to identify any shortcomings in how our fellow citizens are represented and how effective our government is in creating real, positive change for our City. Given that housing costs have long been identified as the most important issue to Cambridge residents, we at ABC hope the Committee prioritizes effective representation, because the same people who bear the brunt of the housing crisis tend to have the hardest time getting their voice heard. For new Cambridge residents, lower-income households, folks who are too busy with school, work, multiple jobs, caring for family, etc., it can be challenging to engage deeply in our political process. We appreciate the Committee’s focus on making politics more accessible for more people. To match our city's values, we urge the Committee to ensure that any changes to the charter serve to promote democracy, not constrict it. We are therefore concerned that the Committee is considering shifting the city council from at-large proportional representation to either a "ward" based system or a hybrid system with some ward and some at-large councillors. We also want to highlight the importance of leadership in resolving the housing crisis.

 ABC strongly opposes transitioning from at-large proportional representation to any ward-based system because of the negative effects on political representation and housing production. 

First, a ward-based or hybrid system will disproportionately amplify the voices of homeowners and disempower renters who already have an undersized impact on how the city government is run, despite making up a majority of the city's population. Renters move more, and would much more frequently transfer between wards, severing the link between them and their existing ward councillor. This would present a larger barrier to renters building strong relationships with their representatives. Furthermore, councillors would be less focused on addressing renters' needs because they would become a less vocal, less reliable constituency. It is already challenging for renters to run for City Council, and our persistent housing shortage could force prospective candidates to leave their ward and disrupt their candidacy if they could not find housing within their budget. A lack of renter representation on the City Council is a gap in representation that we hope is addressed during the charter reform process. 

Second, a councillor representing a ward has an incentive to “protect” their turf over prioritizing citywide needs. Many politicians see affordable housing and apartments as undesirable, and while they may acknowledge a need for it, will push for it to go outside of their district. With more than 21,000 people on the CHA’s waitlist and rents climbing, it is urgent that we accelerate housing and affordable housing production. Yet, a recent study has shown that shifting to a ward-based system harms housing production. Cambridge can’t afford for political haggling over where new homes will go to delay housing production.

Third, wards undermine proportional representation's ability to make every vote count. Even without an intent to gerrymander, there is no way to draw ward lines without breaking up constituencies, so councillors would lose the ability to unite geographically diverse coalitions. We hope the Committee can improve our current system of proportional representation rather than adopt a new, less representative system. Under the current system, a councillor appealing to voters in a particular neighborhood that reaches the threshold purely on that basis can already be elected that way. By moving to wards, we would be imposing the importance of arbitrary neighborhood boundaries on voters in a way they don’t seem to be expressing in their voting patterns. Cambridge may be geographically small, but it has a lot of big ideas, and proportional representation is far better at giving everyone a chance to be heard through their vote and elected representatives.

Lastly, ABC understands the Committee is considering other charter changes as well, such as having an elected mayor instead of a city manager. Although ABC is not taking a stance at this time, we would like to express the importance of executive leadership and accountability. Housing has been the number one issue for years, but Cambridge hasn’t seen the kind of bold action that our elections show voters want.

Thank you,

A Better Cambridge