Voting is mostly unanimous among Danville city commissioners

Danville’s new city commission has a few months of work, including a few well-publicized controversies, now under its belt. It’s high time for a good old-fashioned voting analysis of the commission members. This is of particular interest to me because, in the aftermath of the firing of the former city manager Paul Stansbury, the local newspaper’s editorial board identified an ideological/agenda split between the “Gang of Three” (Hunstad, Montgomery, and Louis) and the remaining two commissioners (Atkins and Caudill). (See the original editorial here.) I wanted to see if there is any evidence to suggest that this ideological split extends other issues and, if so, just how big this split really is.

For my analysis, I collected information on every official city commission vote that took place between their first commission meeting on January 3rd, 2011 and the meeting held on July 12th, 2011. In all, there were 259 votes included in the analysis. The goal is to see if any statistical patterns emerge which suggest that one commissioner (or group of commissioners) consistently differs in their voting from the other commissioners.

The first thing we can look at is how many of the commission votes over the last seven months have been unanimous: a whopping 80.7%. At first blush, this alone suggests that our city commission might not be as divided as they are sometimes made out to be, as they all agree on 4 out of every 5 votes.

Not all votes are created equal, though. Several of the votes (roughly a third) are procedural votes (i.e. approving meeting minutes, motions to adjourn, etc.) that usually do not reflect substantive ideological differences. So I broke the votes into three separate categories: 1) procedural votes, 2) fiscal votes (including budget ordinances, paying the bills, approving grant requests, allocating funds, etc.), and 3) policy-oriented votes (including general city ordinances, personnel hiring/firing, appointments to boards, etc.). Here’s what I found:

  • 86.6% of procedural votes were unanimous
  • 67.7% of fiscal votes were unanimous
  • 91% of policy-oriented votes were unanimous

From this, it seems that the city commission is least united on matters of fiscal policy. It is important to note, though, that when it comes to taxing and spending, they still agree unanimously on two out of every three votes. Surprisingly, the commission has a very high unanimous voting rate (91%) in the “policy-oriented” category. This category includes votes on the hiring/firing of city personnel, including the controversial vote to fire the former city manager.

So a clear majority of votes are unanimous, but are the non-unanimous votes resulting from a split between the “Gang of Three” and Atkins/Caudill? Political scientists who study the U.S. Congress use something called “party unity” scores to measure voting polarization. A “party unity vote” is when a majority of one party votes against a majority from another party. The more “party unity” votes in Congress, the more polarized Congress is along partisan lines. Our current polarized Congress achieved a party unity score of about 90% during the last Congress. During the 1960s and early 1970s it was down near 50%-60% (see here and here for more information on party unity scores in the U.S. Congress).

For this analysis, I created a party unity score pretending that Hunstad, Montgomery, and Louis were members of one party and that Caudill and Atkins were members of the other party. A party unity vote occurred on the commission when a majority of the first party (at least 2 of the “Gang of Three”) voted against a majority of the second party (both Atkins and Caudill). How often has this occurred since our new city commission was sworn in? Only 9.3% of the time. In other words, Atkins and Caudill are voting against a majority of the “Gang of Three” in less than 1 out of every 10 votes. When this is broken down into the three categories described previously, party unity votes occur in 7.3% of the procedural votes, 14.1% of the fiscal votes, and 5.1% of the policy-oriented votes.

As a final check, I compared each commission member to each other to see how often they vote together:

  Hunstad Montgomery Louis Atkins
Montgomery

96.9%

     
Louis

94.9%

93.4%

   
Caudill

87.2%

90.3%

85.2%

92.8%

Atkins

84.8%

84.6%

81.0%

 

As expected, there are certainly some patterns in the voting behavior of the various commission members that break down as we would expect. Hunstad, Montgomery, and Louis all vote together more than 90% of the time, and Atkins and Caudill vote together more than 90% of the time. Hunstad and Montgomery are the most lock-step in their voting, as they match each other nearly 97% of the time. The largest difference seems to be between Atkins and Louis, who only manage to agree in 81% of their votes (this figure drops, though, to 70.9% if you look only at fiscal votes).

The important thing to note is that even the commission members who agree the least still vote together between 80%-90% of the time.

What does all this mean? It means that yes, there is a clear difference in voting patterns between the various commission members, with Hunstad, Montgomery, and Louis tending to vote together and Atkins and Caudill tending to vote together. However, it also suggests that this voting difference is much smaller than it is often made out to be. The commissioners agree on a vast majority of issues, as evidenced by their unanimous voting more than 80% of the time. Even in contentious budgeting and fiscal matters, they still manage to find unanimous agreement in two-thirds of their votes.

All in all, this suggests that there is only weak evidence of a massive, polarized split in Danville’s city commission, at least when it comes to how they vote.

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