By Catherine Brewster
In the fall of 2021, the members of Commonwealth’s junior class, tasked with electing two student representatives, were decisive about how they wanted to do it: ranked-choice voting, aka proportional representation. Rather than the more usual first-past-the-post system for determining winners, each student ranked each of the four candidates from 1 to 4. As one of the class advisors figuring out how to turn the pile of ballots into two winners, I had only a vague sense of what explained their strong preference. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure it was the arrival of Jay Sweitzer-Shalit ’24 the year before.
As he puts it, Jay is “interested in civics and government through a mathematical lens.” If that suggests armchair detachment from actual politics, it shouldn’t. Since middle school, Jay has been accumulating expertise on how Brookline, his home town, is governed; he’s not only thought about how the town can move the needle on equity and climate change but also proposed legislation, whipped votes, and logged hours of Zoom and in-person meetings. He expresses it as another mathematical dilemma: “The time I spend on Brookline politics and the time I spend on school should not be mutually compatible.” Somehow, they are.
Voting and Math
When Jay was a junior, Brookline’s Select Board appointed him to the Ranked Choice Voting Study Committee, charged with recommending how best to implement proportional representation if Brookline chooses to do so.
Town governance in New England isn’t so different from the complex board games Jay and many Commonwealth students enjoy: both involve accounting for multiple stakeholders’ strategies, managing many moving pieces, and acquiring a fair amount of specialized vocabulary. Take, for example, this paragraph from Jay’s committee’s report about the ranked-choice voting legislation under consideration:
After evaluation of several potential RCV options, the Committee selected a Proportional RCV method. Standard forms of Proportional RCV are currently in use in Cambridge and have been selected by Amherst, Concord, and Northampton. Other options reviewed were Sequential RCV and Bottom-Up RCV, which were noted by the RCV Committee to less fairly represent voter-base intentions. The Committee reviewed commonplace methods of transferring Proportional RCV votes from eliminated candidates to continuing candidates, including random assignment, which is simple but can skew outcomes, and fractional-transfer, which requires a spreadsheet to calculate results but produces outcomes which are transparent and traceable.
It’s not hard to see why Jay, when asked what he wishes people understood better about local government, replies, “I wish they understood it at all.” At the same time, the committee’s report goes on, “Survey evidence indicates that voters in municipalities actually using RCV understand how it works.” As the committee member who gathered that evidence, Jay heard from people in several municipalities that “the longer people use RCV, the better they understand it.” Thinking back to Massachusetts Ballot Question 2 on ranked-choice voting, which failed in 2020, he noted that “it’s very easy for opponents to make the math sound more confusing than it already is. And whether they intended to or not, the Yes campaign focused on how it works rather than what it seems to do: increase representation by underrepresented groups and reduce negative campaigning. Candidates don’t have to worry about playing the spoiler to like-minded candidates.”
The 255 elected members of Town Meeting, in Jay’s words, “vote on everything that matters to Brookline, an unwieldy and also very democratic system.” The legislation they consider takes the form of warrant articles. With the committee’s work done and a warrant article on ranked-choice voting before Town Meeting last May, Jay’s role shifted to that of lead whip, soliciting votes. That meant reaching out to about half the Town Meeting members himself, as a compromise was forged under which RCV would be used only for townwide races such as the five-member Select Board, not the election of Town Meeting members. Without that work, said Jay, “the article would not have passed.” The final vote was 120 in favor, 100 opposed, with 7 abstentions.
This is the next term that the local-politics neophyte needs to absorb. Home rule explains why ranked-choice voting is not yet in place in Brookline. Town Meeting’s “yes” vote was actually a vote to petition Massachusetts’ General Court—the state house—for home rule on elections, which the state controls according to its constitution. Brookline voters, in a town referendum, will decide whether to implement RCV in town-wide races if the petition is granted. It probably won’t be “this time,” according to Jay, who has seen this before. “Most home-rule petitions don’t go anywhere, except for the ones for things like ‘Gary in the fire department doesn’t want to retire at 60, so please allow him to work another ten years,’” he said. But he’s also seen what can happen when enough home-rule petitions on the same matter accumulate.
One example concerns voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds and for green-card holders (legal permanent residents who are not U.S. citizens; an effort to allow green-card holders to vote in New York City elections is making its way through the courts now). Brookline petitioned for home rule to allow green-card holders to vote in town elections in 2010 and again after a warrant article Jay proposed that passed “after a very difficult political fight” in the spring of 2022. Brookline’s history with 16- and 17-year-olds voting (again only in town elections) is similar, though not identical: a petition for home rule passed in 2019 but not in 2022. “There is now a statewide push for both,” Jay notes.
Jay’s initiation into Brookline politics, when he was in eighth grade, was a warrant article petitioning for home rule in prohibiting fossil-fuel infrastructure in new construction. In 2022, after denying multiple such petitions—from Brookline and other towns—the state created the Fossil Fuel Free Demonstration Project in ten cities and towns, including Cambridge, Newton, Arlington, and Brookline.
The fight to slow climate change is Jay’s leading example of what he has expressed mathematically as the Collective Action Problem: “If the whole world wants something, but each individual person is motivated by self-interest to do a different thing, then the thing that would be better for everyone doesn’t happen.” Brookline is already a dense, low-carbon community relative to its American peers, but banning new fossil-fuel infrastructure, he said, is one of the few meaningful steps the town can take. “It will have a much bigger impact” if it ends up allowing the town to say to the whole state, or Massachusetts to other states, “This is something that works; copy our language and do it.”
Commonwealth School, of course, is orders of magnitude smaller than Brookline—but that doesn’t mean its climate impact is of less interest to Jay, who admires facilities manager Adam Hinterlang’s work gradually upgrading every light bulb in the school. Jay and the Environmental Club set about calculating the school’s carbon footprint starting in 2022. Surveying students and staff on their commuting habits, Jay said, was the only heavy lift in gathering the data. “After that, it was just talking to Mr. Hinterlang, Ms. Poynter, Chef Dethie, and the language teachers to put all the different pieces together.”
If, as Jay put it, “Commonwealth has given me a great deal of respect for thinking through the implications of everything you do,” then his work in Brookline has added a respect for the long game, for patient acts of counting and persuading. From my perch on sabbatical this year, I asked about compost, having noticed a post-pandemic slide in how conscientiously people sorted their recess and lunch waste. “Oh, we’ve been making announcements,” said Jay. “Stop putting plastic forks in the compost, stop putting plates in the garbage.… For the first month of school, the compost was so contaminated we had to put it in the trash every day. But that’s not happening anymore.” t Catherine Brewster is a twenty-three-year veteran of Commonwealth’s English department.
This article originally appeared in the winter 2024 issue of CM, Commonwealth's alumni/ae magazine.