The Facts Against At-Large Electoral Systems

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

On November 2, Urbana voters will face this question on the ballot: “Shall the City of
Urbana restrict the number of aldermen to a
total of nine,with one alderman representing
each of seven wards, plus an additional two
aldermen to be elected at-large?” Currently,
the Urbana City Council consists of 7 alderpersons,
each one representing a discrete
area of the city, called a “ward.” The proposal on the ballot is
asking whether two more representatives should be added to
the council. The “at-large” part means that those two representatives
would be elected by amajority vote of all voters within
the city boundaries (like themayor or city-clerk).
More is better, right? Wouldn’t two more representatives
give everybody more voice in local government? Perhaps
Urbana is behind the times, and needs to sign on with this hip
new form of choosing their elected officials?
Or perhaps not. If you look across the country, you’ll find
that over 250 cities across the United States have recently
removed at-large seats from their city councils. Removing
them has been so popular that “the second most commonly
considered change [in municipal government structures
nationwide] was to eliminate at-large seats on the council and
replace them with ward or district elections.” In fact, the
change being proposed in Urbana is so uncommon that the
standard sources used to track trends in local government
don’t even bother to report it. As a result, political and social
scientists who study the effects of at-large elections now tend
to focus their attention on school boards, as there just aren’t
enough city council examples left to support research.
But even school boards with at-large elections are getting
harder to find. Right here in the city of Urbana, the voters
overwhelmingly chose to eliminate at-large from the school
board in favor of district elections in 1998.
Those pushing to resurrect at-large as an improvement for
the council point to the fact that more voters turnout in some
areas of the city than others.Although this is a common occurrence
all over the United States, they feel that voters who live
in wards with higher turnout deserve a greater voice in government.
But imagine if we applied their reversal of constitutional
philosophy to the state legislature. The 100th Representative
District, which surrounds Springfield, had 48,000 voters
turnout in the last election—almost twice the number of people
who voted in our 103rd District! Does this mean Champaign-
Urbana voters deserve less representation than Springfield
does in the Illinois House of Representatives?
Not according to the U.S. Constitution (see Article I, Section
II, and the 14th amendment). The constitutional principle
of “one person, one vote” is that representation in government
must be based on population, not on voter turnout. In
other words, everyone has the same rights to equal representation,
whether they choose to vote or not.
A t – l a rge systems have long been supported by those who
think they deserve more representation than others. Used in
local governments for at least the last 100 years, it gained
renewed popularity around 1965, when congress passed one
of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation, the Vo ting
Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act enacted a number of
changes that were meant to empower minorities to vote and
gain equal representation. A common method used to negate
the minority vote in the wake of the Voting RightsAct (as well
as before it), was to use at-large seats for local government.
At-large seats are effective in diluting the minority vote
because they require candidates to run city-wide as opposed
to district-wide. Minority neighborhood districts are more
likely to elect minority candidates. But at-large seats, with
voters taken from anywhere in the city, typically elect majority
candidates. This has been proven time in study after study,
making it one of the most verified findings in the field of
political science.
As convincing as it is, one need not solely rely on empirical
evidence in the scientific literature for examples of how
at-large affects minority representation. Right here in central
Illinois we have plenty of examples:
In 1987, a group of African-Americans filed a minority
vote dilution lawsuit against the city of Springfield, seeking
the city’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act. As a result,
the city eliminated its at-large system in favor of a ward system—
like we have here in Urbana. The first African-American
was then elected to that body since 1911.
Also in 1987, a similar lawsuit was brought against the
city of Danville. At that time in the city’s history, every elected
council member since the city was founded in 1867 were
all white men. The city settled the lawsuit by eliminating atlarge
and adopting a ward system—again, like we have in
Urbana. And since they removed at-large? The city has elected
5 African-Americans, 8 women, a Latino, and a person of
Native-American descent. Danville, with an over 20%
African-American population, has since had two African-
Americans on the council at all times.
In 1998, the citizens of Urbana voted to eliminate at-large
seats from the school board in favor of district elections. Subsequently,
the first African-American was elected to that body
in 20 years.
While Springfield and Danville’s electoral systems were
fully at-large, the system being proposed in Urbana is
referred to as a “mixed” system—one made up of both districts
and at-large. Proponents of the proposed change suggest
this is an important distinction, one which makes all of the
scientific evidence “irrelevant.” But the leading scholars in
political science have studied mixed systems as well. Susan
Welch, a leading researcher on the effects of at-large elections
on minority representation, and Dean and Professor of Political
Science at Penn State University states it clearly: “While
blacks are equitably represented in the district portions of
mixed systems, they are abysmally underrepresented in the
at-large portions.”
Given the overwhelming national and local evidence, we
can easily predict some of the effects of adding at-large to
Urbana’s city council. Currently, the council is 1/7th African-
American, just as 1/7th of Urbana’s population is African-
American. Since at-large seats almost never elect minority
candidates, we can be assured that at-large would dilute
minority representation in Urbana’s city government, with
African-American representation immediately shifting to
1/9th of the council. This disparity would grow over time, as
African-Americans are on track to make up 1/5th of Urbana’s
population within the next 10 years.
One of the fundamental reasons at-large dilutes minority
representation is the high cost of running a city-wide campaign.
Minority candidates are less likely to receive the bigmoney
backing typically supplied by majority supporters. But
minorities aren’t the only ones discouraged by the at-large
system; the average majority citizen doesn’t have the funds to
compete with special interest funded candidates either.
While a candidate for a ward seat can knock on every door
in their ward, it would be impossible for an at-large candidate
to knock on every door in the city. This forces at-large candidates
to replace personal contact with media saturation. A s
such, they engage in one-way communication, broadcasting
their ideas out to the people, hoping voters find their sound
bites more appealing than the other candidates’ sound bites. In
contrast, a ward candidate continuously engages in two-way
communication with the voters. Every time they knock on a
door they hear the concerns of their neighbors, and it is in their
best interests as a candidate to remember and respond to those
concerns. The concept of local government is that local decisions
aremade by normal people that understand the concerns
of people like them. In comparison, at-large elections produce
council representatives that are out of touch with those they
represent, and obligated to special interests.
There has been extensive research into alternative electoral
systems. Various versions of a system called proportional
representation (such as that used in Peoria, IL) are often
cited in research on election reform. Unfortunately, those
pushing for at-large elections never researched the problems
inherent in this system that cities across the country have
been abandoning for years. Urbana needs effective city government—
it has serious problems and it needs serious
answers. But at-large is not the answer.
Ben Grosser is an Urbana resident, and is one of the lead –
ers of “Vote No At-Large,” a local grassroots organization
opposed to the addition of at-large seats in Urbana. Further
information, including a detailed review of the scientific liter –
ature on this topic, is available on the organization’s website,
at .

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.