At-large vs. district elections

In last night’s mayoral candidate forum, Bernie Hunstad said that he supported changing Danville’s system of city commission elections. (Jamey Gay supported keeping things the way they currently are on that issue.) As it stands, there are no separate geographical districts for city commissioners. All Danville residents vote on all city commission candidates and each commissioner represents “all” of Danville instead of a smaller neighborhood. This is called an “at-large” system. Mr. Hunstad said that he supported changing to a district, or “ward” system where each commissioner would represent a smaller section of Danville and be elected only by those who live in that section.

This is not an unreasonable proposal. District elections are currently used in about 40% of municipal governments in the United States. There are some important things, however, to take into consideration:

Accountability – who would you like your city commissioner to be accountable to: you and your neighbors or all of the city? When something goes wrong, do you want to be able to have a single person who is YOUR representative who you can contact? Or would you prefer to contact ALL of your commissioners who are all partially accountable to you?

Focus – Who would you like your commissioner to represent? Would you prefer that you have ONE commissioner representing your neighborhood that you and your neighbors get to elect all by yourselves? Or would you prefer being able to vote on ALL commissioners and have them, in turn, focus their attention on all of Danville and not just your neighborhood?

Minority representation – racial/ethnic minorities usually stand a better chance of being represented on city councils and commissions with district elections.

Voter turn-out – Hajnal and Lewis (2003) provide evidence that district elections tend to depress voter turn-out. However, there have been other studies that show that voter turn-out is not really affected by at-large vs. district elections.

Neighborhood representation – with at-large systems (like the one Danville currently enjoys) there is the possibility that all five city commissioners could live in the same part of town – or even the same street! Would you prefer that the city commission be geographically representative of the city? Or would you prefer more freedom to vote for candidates from any part of the city, even if they happen to be geographically clustered?

Demographics: in the U.S. today, at-large systems are more common in more affluent, racially homogenous communities. District systems are more common in larger, urban areas with socioeconomic and racial diversity. District systems are also more common in cities with strong mayor systems and at-large systems are more common in cities with council-manager type systems.

Clearly, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer. It all depends on your preferences for city government and how you like to be represented and what you think would be better for your neighborhood and the city at large.

2 responses to “At-large vs. district elections

  1. I’d really like some data on this issue, not just arguments and opinions. Specifically, you say,
    “District elections are currently used in about 40% of municipal governments in the United States.”
    “in the U.S. today, at-large systems are more common in more affluent, racially homogenous communities.”
    Do you have an references to data and/or anlyses that support these claims?


  2. Benjamin Knoll

    Thanks for the questions!

    For the statistics on districts vs. at-large elections, see “Local Politics, A Practical Guide to Governing at the Grassroots” second edition by Christensen and Hogen-Esch, pg 147 and 155. The data is from “The Municipal Year Book”. about 60% of U.S. cities use at-large elections, 14% use districts, and 21% mix the two systems – combined nearly 40% use districts in some form.

    For which types of communities are more likely to have the different types of systems, see the same book, pages 155-157.

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