Cambridge’s city council election by the numbers: 2019

A Better Cambridge
8 min readJan 7, 2020

How the Affordable Housing Overlay, its detractors, and the ABC AF slate affected the election + what it means for the next two years.

The ABC AF Slate

We’re proudly claiming a big victory, at A Better Cambridge Action Fund (ABC AF). But can we substantiate that claim?

And why did we go with a slate of candidates, not just individual endorsements? What percent of Cambridge residents actually voted? What are the demographics of ABC AF supporters?

You’ve got questions?

We’ve got fancy graphs, charts, and a sprinkling of tweets. Let’s see if you’ll consider those answers. Forthwith, our data-filled guide to the forces at play in the 2019 Cambridge election.

First, the basics — Who ran? And what did they stand for?

There were 22 candidates, 8 of them incumbents, for 9 City Council seats. (Jan Devereux didn’t seek re-election.)

The 2019 election results. Names in pink represent ABC AF-slate members. An (i) indicates incumbents — who tend to have a big re-election advantage. Not to worry, we explain the “counts” further down.

The big election issue: Arguably, it was the Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO), last term’s only major housing proposal, which failed to pass despite having majority council support (5/9). Under state law, it required a supermajority. The AHO helped turn the election into a referendum on housing.

The coalitions: ABC AF was the only organization whose platform supported the AHO (as well as more housing, and tenants protections).

Broadly, the three other groups that ran slates tend to favor limiting the building of new homes. The Cambridge Citizens Coalition (CCC) was created in opposition to the AHO. The Cambridge Residents Alliance (CResA), didn’t take a stand on the AHO, but has a history of opposing new construction. Our Revolution Cambridge (ORC), endorsed six candidates opposed to the AHO, and one in support (Jivan, who we also endorsed).

The ABC AF slate had overlap with CResA (Jivan, Risa) and ORC (Jivan), and none with CCC.

The 2019 election results by slate.

Why a slate? Why encourage people to “vote the entire slate”?

Slates are extremely important in Cambridge, because we have proportional representation system that uses ranked-choice voting.

The ranking: Council seats are at-large — all candidates represent the entire city. Voters can rank candidates on their ballots #1, #2, #3 and so on. Votes past #1 matter tremendously because most candidates win with transfer votes from other candidates. (This year, 8/9 councilors were elected that way.)

The math: First, the system counts the number of valid ballots cast (this year: 21,229), and divides by 10 (# of seats + 1) to establish quota (this year: 2,123). Candidates must make quota to win a seat. Basically, once a candidate is elected or defeated, the system transfers their next-ranked votes to candidates still in-play. (For the full rules, see here.)

ABC AF’s goal: We wanted to maximize votes transferred among our candidates — by campaigning for a cohesive group, we hoped that when one was elected or eliminated, their next-ranked votes would lift up the rest.

It worked. Count by count, votes for ABC AF candidates transferred to other slate members:

  • Sumbul, the #1 vote-getter, hit quota on the first count. Most of her transfer votes went to Denise and Alanna. (Burhan, Marc and Jivan also benefited, as well as non-ABC candidate Quinton.)
  • On the sixth count, Risa was defeated, with most of her transfers going to Adriane and Alanna, although her votes didn’t consistently transfer to slate candidates.

Adriane and Burhan were among the last candidates standing (defeated in counts #11 and #13).

  • The majority of Adriane ballots went to Alanna, followed by Marc, Jivan, and Burhan.
  • The majority of Burhan ballots went to Alanna and Jivan, followed by Marc and Tim.
Count 1 shows total #1 votes for each candidate. Count 2 shows how Sumbul’s transfer votes helped the ABC AF slate, particularly Denise and Alanna. Count 14 shows that Burhan’s transfers elected Alanna (giving her 352 more votes), Jivan (346), Marc (150) and, in the next count, Tim (95).

Another way of looking at the power of the slate (and ABC AF’s in particular): people who ranked one ABC candidate highly were more likely to rank others highly. This effect was stronger this year than in 2017, when neither ABC nor any other group campaigned as hard for a slate. (Instead, groups made individual endorsements.)

Interestingly, however, few voters followed the exact order advertised by any slate. Most who voted a slate boosted preferred candidates, rather than going in straight alpha or reverse-alpha order (as slate literature advertised).

The top ballot orders were the ABC “alpha” slate, followed by the CCC slate. But out of 20k+ voters, these numbers are negligibly low. Maps by Davi da Silva. Data on ballot order by Chris Schmidt.

Why do these results give ABC AF a “big” victory? Was it unexpected?

Local politics tend to favor policies that restrict the building of new homes. Younger voters and newcomers to the community — for whom high housing costs are an immediate crisis — tend to support building new homes. But they don’t vote much.

In part because it’s so hard to understand what’s actually going on in local elections — particularly, given how little shrinking local news outlets cover these campaigns—voters tend to be older, more housing-secure, and wealthier than the regular population.

While residents in the 20–35 age range are best represented (chart at left), that demographic votes at far lower numbers than those aged 60–80 (middle). Nevertheless, these numbers are an improvement from 2015 (right). Charts by Davi da Silva.

For people in the know, local elections are largely about housing. First, state law requires a supermajority to make changes to zoning laws, which dictate how much housing gets built. Second, it’s the one thing over which many city councils have direct control. (In Cambridge, the City Manager controls the budget, and thus has considerable power over how the Council’s other priorities get implemented.)

Boston Globe coverage ahead of the 2019 local elections in Greater Boston. The editorial (right) endorsed ABC’s point of view and slate.

So, when a local government elects a supermajority that favors increasing new housing, it’s a big deal. This year in particular the AHO brought out the established older folks, many of whom considered the law “extreme.”

While many other Greater Boston communities elected councilors who generally oppose new housing, Cambridge bucked the trend. As we’ll show below, we think the AHO as an election issue, combined with our ability to mount a powerful campaign educating less-established voters (and our strong pro-housing candidates) made the difference.

This term, with six councilors from the ABC AF slate, the city has the pro-housing supermajority it needs to change most housing laws. In particular, the AHO is likely to pass.

Globe reporter Tim Logan and housing advocate Randy Shaw tweeted about the election results. Twitter is sometimes the best source for news on local elections, which typically receive little press coverage. (The Globe didn’t cover the election results.)

We hope this Council will make even more changes to our exclusionary zoning code — such as abolishing parking minimums and legalizing triple deckers. We should seize this rare chance to use housing policy to become as inclusive and environmentally-friendly as we can be.

Who voted for ABC AF? Where are housing/AHO supporters and detractors from?

It should come as no surprise that wealthier neighborhoods favor restricting new home construction. Younger, less established/less wealthy voters tend to be friendlier to ABC AF.

Comparing the two most dissimilar slates, ABC and CCC, shows that ABC AF has many geographic strongholds, whereas CCC’s advantage is most concentrated in West Cambridge, a wealthy, suburban neighborhood.

The chart at left shows ABC AF does well throughout the City, with the exception of West Cambridge. Map at right for reference.
For more context, the neighborhoods that do well with CCC tend to be wealthier, less dense/more suburban, and older than Cambridge as a whole. From the 2019 Cambridge Neighborhood Profile and Davi da Silva.

Despite their geographic advantage, one problem for pro-housing forces in Cambridge is that turnout is highest in the wealthier, older neighborhoods that tend to oppose new home construction. One of ABC AF’s challenges is raising awareness about the election, and why it matters.

Turnout tends to be highest in neighborhoods that favor CCC over ABC, notably West Cambridge (left). This cycle, student-heavy areas (Harvard and Kendall/MIT) saw an increase in voting rates (right), and median voter age decreased from 28 to 26. Maps by Davi da Silva.

Let’s end with a quick word on voter education. As you’ve seen above, lack of awareness is a major reason why local politics are so regressive on housing policy (which is also equity and environmental policy). But it’s not for lack of interest.

One example of the hunger for information among voters is that about 2,800 unique visitors clicked on our slate page the weekend before the election. With 21,229 valid ballots cast, that’s an astonishing 14% of Cambridge voters, who then likely passed on the word to significant others, roommates and friends. (AF’s sister organization’s website got about 1,200 unique visitors that weekend, but it’s hard to know how many of those also visited AF.)

This year, our clear support for the AHO helped us by giving voters a tangible example of what was at stake in the election.

Post-election tweets about how difficult it is to understand local elections, and how the AHO and ABC AF slate helped change that. (Links: left, right.)

In all, turnout was 31% of registered voters — nearly unchanged from the 2017 election’s 32%. In a year with fewer open seats (there was 1 this year, versus 3 last time), and a political environment lacking the intensity of post-Trump’s 2017, we at ABC AF think that’s an impressive number.

We believe our campaign efforts—which relied on over 100 volunteers to send mailers, flier at T stops, canvass, text, and email—helped the pro-housing platform resonate with Cambridge voters. We can’t wait to see a pro-housing policy payoff this term, and build on these results in 2021.



A Better Cambridge

All-volunteer pro-housing group on a mission to address the housing crisis in Cambridge + beyond.