What does empirical political science tell us about single-member districts?

In Austin, SMD proponents claim that a new electoral scheme will (1) improve the delivery of public services by creating geographic representation, (2) increase the proportion of Latinos elected to the City Council, and (3) address relatively low voter turnout rates. Pro-SMD arguments are often theoretical or anecdotal; luckily, empirical political science provides helpful insights about the usefulness of SMDs.

Austin’s peculiar ‘at-large’ method  as well as the so-called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ that protects Latino and African-American seats is a deviation from conventional at-large systems. In the Austin implementation there are ‘places’ that force a voter to compare candidates running for a specific seat – candidates explicitly run against each other. Hence, in Austin, someone can run for the ‘Hispanic’ seat. The more conventional arrangement features a pool of candidates and the voter allocates their multiple votes across that pool. Candidates are not explicitly running against each other for a specific place. This has important implications when considering the impact of SMDs on ethnic and gender representation.

With that important clarification, here are some key findings from the political science literature on SMDs that are relevant to Austin’s discussion:

1. Geographic districts are likely to help Latino’s ‘descriptive’ representation, but might hurt women’s. Including some pooled at-large seats can reduce risk to women’s representation.

The most recent and exhaustive review of at-large versus single-member districts in a national data set concludes that only African-American male candidates are significantly helped by single-member districts; white women candidates are hurt.

Latinos, Latinas, and female African-Americans seem to perform at relatively similar levels under the ‘pooled’ version of at-large districts (as opposed to Austin’s place-driven implementation). Hispanics show significant variation in the level of ethnocentric voting and so SMDs tend to beat the at-large average only when there’s a very high density of Hispanic voters.

The precise reasons for the success of white women in at-large systems are elusive, but there’s a suggestion that the lack of direct head-to-head competition in the at-large pools is more helpful to female candidates’ style and triggers less overt sexist bias in voters. Black men are disadvantaged by the at-large systems, but significantly benefit from ethnocentric voting under SMDs.

However, if we dig deeper into the data and older research and adapt it to Austin’s quirky citywide implementation, it becomes clearer that the effect on Latino descriptive representation would be high because of the dense nature of the districts being designed, as well as the fact that the Austin place-driven implementation potentially forces some of the ethnic polarization through head-to-head contests that the pooled systems avoid. For example, in Boston, the first Hispanic city council person was elected from a citywide pool by assembling a coalition of progressives, non-Latin American new immigrants, and Hispanics. According to the candidate, when Bostonians voted for him, they were not picking him ‘over’ an explicit choice, but rather including him in their preferred pool.

The implication for Austin is that a hybrid system with some at-large seats might be the best balance of the different ‘descriptive’ representation needs. It’s important to note that the at-large seats should be a pool and not place-based if the goal is to support women or give an additional shot to African-American or Asian candidates. Having to explicitly pick a candidate to run against might generate bias that makes success difficult.

2. SMDs are unlikely to improve long-term, citywide voter turnout.

The most recent study with the most extensive controls found that SMDs are not drivers of increased turnout. While it’s possible that some previously inactive neighborhoods will see more activity as the result of contested elections, there’s no empirical basis to claim that SMDs will systematically increase turnout. Instead, the timing of elections was found to be the most important element.

However, the fact that SMDs do not affect turnout is not an argument against them. For example, the glib tone of this Statesman editorial against SMDs urging some participation ‘boot-strapping’ by marginal Austinites is off the mark. SMDs are not the path, but overlooking the sub-optimal design of our institutions in properly engaging the young, the poor, and the newly arrived is the wrong direction for boosting Austin’s civic engagement. Instead we should consider changing the timing of elections, mail voting, public financing, and bulking up teens’ civic education on the mechanics of voting.

3. A higher number of districts are likely to increase public spending unless the Mayor gets a veto.

This is a repeated finding over the last few decades. As the number of seats (whether at-large or SMD) increase, then the coordination costs amongst the higher number of legislators along with their constituent connections mean higher expenditures relative to similar communities with fewer legislators. Whether this is good or bad is up to one’s values: one person’s park is another’s pork. However, more recent research indicates that local governments where Mayors have a veto tend to reduce if not eliminate the additional spending since the Mayor is responsive to a citywide median voter. The takeaway is that smaller bodies coordinate more efficiently and that providing the Mayor with a veto is a good hedge against excessively costly logrolling.

In Austin, we will have to balance the desire to create opportunities for African-American representation with logrolling downsides.  The larger the final council member count, the more important including a Mayoral veto in the package becomes to reduce the risk of becoming a public expenditure outlier.

4. SMDs are likely to create unpredictable NIMBY dynamics.

One of the more eloquent critics of SMDs in Austin has been Chris Bradford who has raised the idea of ‘ward courtesy.’ Certainly, there is some support for ward courtesy in the spend-and-let-spend literature mentioned above. However, the most detailed examination of locally-unwanted land-uses (in this case fire stations and community centers) and SMDs found that the uses still got sited somewhere. In Austin, SMDs would disrupt the existing sole median voter (e.g. a Central Austin preservationist) with a new set of many median voters. It doesn’t seem that the incentives under such a scheme prevent collusion by coalitions of SMD representatives from packing or ganging up on one district.

For supporters of thoughtful land use like Bradford, this could cut both ways.

On the one hand, building aggressive market-rate housing density in the core could become more viable since those communities will lose their outsize influence over the existing electorate’s median voter. This might be unwelcome news to some of the most vocal proponents of SMDs. SMD reps accountable to neighborhoods could also become a lot more polarized around topics such as supportive housing than the current set of citywide officials. I don’t think anyone can claim that the precise pattern of NIMBYism that will arise is obvious or that it will be permanently enshrined by an SMD system.

The transition to SMDs will lower the barriers to entry for minority opinions (as opposed to ‘minority’ ethnic groups) and sometimes they will win. I’d expect a much faster tempo of incorporation of new ideas; whether they gain enduring clout is hard to assess.

5. The dominant coalition displaced by SMDs is likely to resort to greater use of referendums to achieve policy priorities.

When a group that is used to getting its way through control of a citywide majority finds its ability to direct policy undercut by a new system with several, dynamic median voters that destabilize the policy status quo, they might try and circumvent the process through the use of referendums.  This step provides a mechanism to re-establish the previous sole, citywide median voter. The implication: a transition to SMDs should ensure that the qualification for a referendum process is meaningful enough that it doesn’t undermine the elected branches.


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6 Responses to What does empirical political science tell us about single-member districts?

  1. jmvcortez says:

    Well done – jmvc

  2. Robert Ryland says:

    All fine and good. But like much of the (very thoughtful & important) critiques of SMDs, it still amounts to concern over future policy outcomes, not whether those outcomes are arrived at through a more fair and democratic process. Most of the wonkier screeds on this issue seems to urge wariness about unintended consequences, generally leading to some version of “is THAT the kind of city we want to be?”, when the point of the change is to create opportunity for more diverse voices help answer the question. The answer is, the city should be what it’s citizens want it to be. Right now very few of Austin’s citizens have an avenue and/or incentive to give their input. If it all turns to crap under SMDs, well, that’s part of the risk of democracy.

    Most curious to me, though, is the possibility of the current voting power bloc wielding referendums as their policy hammer, instead of going the more cozy route of just re-electing their protectors every couple of years. Very well then. Referendums invite more public scrutiny and sunlight than regular council meetings, by forcing proponents to make their case to a broader swath of the electorate. If a 13% bubble of voters wants to force policy on a city, I’m not convinced that referendum campaigns make it easier for them.

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a quality comment. I hope that you will keep coming back and ‘kicking the tires’ on the ideas posted here. Now let’s turn to your specific points.

      The public expenditure and NIMBY points are indeed about how SMDs systematically affect policy choices. I did not intend these as disqualifying arguments against SMDs but as considerations that would make the reader consider the need for a strong mayor and perhaps some at-large seats.

      More importantly, the first point is very much about the impact of SMDs on the ‘diverse voices’ that would make policy. I assume that you wouldn’t want to select an election design that runs the risk of systematically under-representing half of the potential electorate (women). Because empirically, that’s one of the dilemmas introduced by SMDs.

      Second, for groups that are not geographically concentrated (new immigrant groups, the different Asian-American groups, gays and lesbians, some other geographically- dispersed opinion minority such as libertarians) pooled at-large seats are a way for them to get an opportunity seat. For these two reasons, if you are interested in an optimal mix of opportunities for diverse voices and avoiding under-representation of major identity categories, then some type of hybrid approach is best; probably one that features a few pooled at-large seats and many SMD seats.

      Referendums do not “forc[e] proponents to make their case to a broader swath of the electorate.” They are a way to go back to the pre-existing citywide median voter that would be disrupted by the creation of a new set of district-based median voters under SMD. Moreover, the essay linked to in the post in addition to other research on referendums makes it pretty clear that groups shop for the election that is best for them; the existing dominant city center coalition could certainly choose to make policy this way without having to appeal to a new electorate.

      The California example on referendums should terrify anyone that is interested in promoting diverse voices or sensible public policy. Those propositions tend to be poorly written, waged with terribly opaque and misleading campaigns, are remarkably constraining to the elected legislators, repeatedly written to suppress the rights of minority identity groups, and creates a municipal culture of circumvention through referendums as well. Majoritarian policy setting is not necessarily the same thing as substantive democracy, and definitely not when that majority is an artifact of election forum shopping.

  3. psawomenpolitics says:

    Reblogging this at our website!

  4. Pingback: Three choices not two | Keep Austin Wonky

  5. Pingback: The Austin Cut is not the deepest | Keep Austin Wonky

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