Can district elections provide better city representation?

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It’s an old debate. Which is better, electing city councils from at-large seats? Or break the city into separate by-district seats?

I was born in Detroit in 1955 and grew up in the nearby suburb of Wayne. So I had a front-row seat for Motown’s decline in the 1960s. One reason I’ve heard over the decades is Detroit from 1918 until 2013 elected council members at large. That was contrasted to Chicago, which has had aldermen elected in districts, and did not experience nearly as much decay, at least until recently. Obviously there were other problems hitting Detroit, such as the decline of the auto industry.

But as was explained on Urbanphile by Pete Saunders, an urban planner in Chicago and Detroit native, the at-large system was “a double-edged sword for Detroit. While it may have kept a lid on some of the possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents and city government. I believe this led to two significant impacts.” First it allowed the powerful auto industry to run the city on its terms.

“Second, without representation and support, neighborhoods were unable to mature in Detroit as they had in other major cities. They never had champions at the local government level, as elected officials had to view the city in its entirety and abstractly, and not represent and develop a unique part of the city.”

The Detroit Free Press in 2020 chronicled how, in the late 1950s the new interstate freeway system destroyed unrepresented Black neighborhoods. For example, “The Chrysler Freeway blasted through Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, destroying a vibrant Black business and entertainment district that contained some of the African-American community’s most important institutions.”

Read Michael Warnken’s Free Cities Center article about improving voter representation.

Read this Pacific Research Institute article about California’s poor level of representation.

Today the city I now call home, the very different Irvine, Calif., is going through the same debate. At its Oct. 10 meeting, the City Council voted for a plan and map to be put before voters in next March’s primary election. The council would be expanded from five to seven members, six elected by district and a mayor elected at large. The VoiceofOC noted Anaheim was forced to make the switch to districts in 2014. “Like Anaheim, Irvine was threatened with a lawsuit in 2021, alleging the current system disenfranchises minority voters and candidates.”

A week later, on Oct. 17, San Clemente’s City Council approved switching its five councilmembers from at-large to four districts, plus an at-large mayor. The Orange County Register reported, “If approved in a second required vote on Nov. 7, the new districts will go into effect for the November 2024 election.”

A big influence on whether California cities adopt districts was the 2002 California Voting Rights Act. It stipulated in Section 14027, “An at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class.”

Basically, for the state’s increasingly diverse cities, it’s hard to avoid moving to districts. Indeed, that’s what has been happening, for cities large and small. A May 17 study for the League of California Cities was called, “Implementing Districts – Now That You Have Gone to Districts, What Next?” It tallied, “Since the law’s passage in 2002, at least 185 cities and nearly 400 other California jurisdictions have made the switch.” It noted cities do not need to get voter approval for a switch, provided the 2002 Voting Rights Act is cited.

The National Demographics Corp. helps cities decide on redistricting and making sure new district maps are in compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Its website explained, “California local governments are in the midst of an historic shift in how leaders are elected. Since the Progressive Movement of the early 1900s, at-large elections were the election system for well over 90% of California local governments. But now that is changing rapidly. Hundreds of local jurisdictions have switched to by-district elections for their city council, school board or board of directors.”

NDC reported it helped La Palma (in Orange County) on Oct. 4 adopt “Public Draft Map 112 as their new City Council election districts map. Starting in 2024, La Palma voters will elect councilmembers by-district instead of citywide.” And on Sept. 6, it was Dublin (in Alameda County) adopting districts.

For comparison, Irvine now has 313,685 residents, San Clemente 63,457, Dublin 71,674 and La Palma 15,413. So cities of all sizes are moving to by-district elections. Who wants a lawsuit? And the smaller cities have fewer resources to fight in court.

However, it should be kept in mind the 1918 switch to at-large districts in Detroit and many other places around that time came from Progressive Era reforms to root out district-centric corruption. Yet Chicago, which kept its 50 aldermanic districts, used to be known as the “City that Works.” Your alderman might be corrupt, and part of old Mayor Richard Daley’s Cook County Democratic Party machine, but a call to him would take care of trash not picked up, or get your kid a summer job.

Some Progressive Era reforms were salutary, such as California Gov. Hiram Johnson’s recall and initiative and referendum reforms of 1911. Some were downright distasteful, such as national alcohol Prohibition imposed when the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919. By-district voting should be market as of mixed effect.

As to ethnicity and districts, that’s a major reason for them today. In Irvine, the city’s large Asian population want more say. In Anaheim a decade ago, it was Latinos. But in the Detroit of a century ago – just after three of my immigrant grandparents arrived – there also were ethnic divisions as the city switched away from districts. The major groups then were known by the districts that still bear their names: Greektown, Corktown (Irish), Mexicantown, Poletown, etc.

And today’s passion for districts well could turn in a couple of decades into a new Progressive-type call for the reform of corruption to bring back at-large elections. There is no panacea that brings good government. Which is another reason, regardless of whether councilmembers are elected at-large or by-district, to keep government as small as possible.

John Seiler is on the Editorial Board of the Orange County Register.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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