Even before their revenues were crushed by Covid-19, cities were saddled with considerable debt. Institutional reforms, including how local officials are elected, may be needed to ensure cities’ long-term financial health. Until the 1960s, reformers looking to improve municipal government prescribed “at-large” city council elections—where voters choose all the council members, giving the winners an incentive to make decisions best for the whole city. In district elections, by contrast, voters pick only the candidates in their own district, giving council members limited incentives to think about the whole city’s well-being.

Starting in 1975, courts forced cities to adopt district elections in cases where at-large elections were determined to be racially discriminatory. Certain jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting patterns—as specified under Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act—needed “preclearance” from the Department of Justice before changing their electoral rules. These jurisdictions were mainly in the South, but they also included New York City, Alaska, and some other places with a history of low minority-voter turnout. By 2013, preclearance requirements were based on data at least 40 years old. That year, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder declared Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, despite Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s warning that this could result in the dilution of minority representation.

If Ginsburg were right, cities would have sought to reduce minority representation by switching to at-large elections. In fact, of the 1,060 cities that required preclearance before 2013, only five have changed how they elect the city council, and in all five, the change was the elimination of at-large representation. District elections favor incumbents, so it’s not surprising, in retrospect, that local elected officials would prefer that method of representation. Scholar Jessica Trounstine has shown that council members elected by district are more likely to run for reelection, and more likely to be reelected, compared with council members elected at-large.

District elections can help incumbents in various ways. Districts can be gerrymandered to ensure voters’ support for particular viewpoints. To give moderate voters in south Asheville more representation on the Asheville city council, for instance, the North Carolina legislature tried in 2018 to impose district-based elections on Asheville, which defied the legislature and kept at-large elections. Also, council members elected by district can take credit for spending that occurs in their district, while blaming the rest of the council for higher taxes.

District voting is meant to ensure better outcomes for minorities by ensuring that majority-minority districts can elect representative candidates—but this system, as Lani Guinier famously pointed out, only transfers the problem of minorities being outnumbered in the polling place to their being outnumbered on the city council. Council members elected by district have incentives to limit growth in their district, thus making housing more expensive for the entire city. District-based elections also result in distorted spending priorities. Noninfrastructure spending increased 9 percent and 12 percent after shifting from at-large to district elections. Councilmembers elected by district are more likely to favor police spending and road repair—easier to allocate within districts—than city-wide categories such as health and welfare. The increase in noninfrastructure spending is the same regardless of whether the change to district elections is voluntary or court-ordered.

District elections tend to lead to the deferral of necessary spending—specifically, on funding pensions. This is consistent, again, with the hypothesis that council members have limited motivation to think about the long-term interests of the city. Some evidence suggests that district-based elections postpone infrastructure spending as well.

A benign explanation of these findings is that district elections increase overall noninfrastructure spending, equalizing city services across white and minority districts. If this were true, then one would expect noninfrastructure spending to increase more with district elections in cities with higher proportions of black residents because the overall cost to provide blacks and whites with the same caliber of services is higher when the number of blacks is higher. In fact, studies have found no such differences between cities, and thus no support for the equalization hypothesis.

Ideally, one would estimate the effect of district elections by randomly assigning cities to district and at-large elections. While this cannot be done with U.S. cities, it happened in Afghanistan, where each of 250 villages was randomly given district or at-large councils. A 2016 study found that in villages in which councils were elected at-large, council members were more educated, development projects were implemented faster, and children were less likely to suffer health issues such as diarrhea. These results suggest that district elections not only distort the incentives of council members but also attract less able individuals to serve.

Despite concerns that Shelby would dilute minority representation, the Court’s ruling did not lead cities to switch to at-large elections en masse, though it probably would be a positive move if more cities were to adopt this model of apportionment. District elections lead to more discretionary spending (without any accompanying additional spending on infrastructure), greater unfunded pension liabilities, bigger incumbency advantages, and higher housing costs. On the other side of the ledger, the only documented benefit of district representation is the increase in the number of minority city council members.

Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images


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