Is “Ward Courtesy” Likely to Happen with SMDs?

Chris Bradford over at Austin Contrarian – the inspiration for this humble blog – argues that SMDs will institutionalize planning and zoning parochialism:

Council members whose districts will not be affected  directly will have an incentive to defer to the affected Council member; they will want and expect that deference to be reciprocated.  That is the genesis of ward courtesy…In a ward courtesy system, you only need one vote for zoning changes as a practical matter. “

This is certainly true if a single-member district’s active median voter is indifferent to a specific zoning or planning policy.  But if the median voter for a SMD representative (representative “A”) has a strong policy preference that disagrees with the SMD representative where the development will occur (representative “B”), then rep “A” can potentially disregard their median voter’s preferences – but said representative will be out-of-step with the district and exposed to an electoral loss.

In order for the ward courtesy assertion to be true, there could never be a situation where the constituents for rep “A” and rep “B” strongly disagree. If there is a disagreement, then the tit-for-tat scheme breaks down.

Let’s look at a particular case that is of high interest to both Chris and me: making the city center more dense.  Under ward courtesy, density would stay at the status quo trajectory  because the new SMD representatives outside the center city would not represent the median voter in their district (in the event they have a policy preference) and instead establish a tit-for-tat with other legislators.

While it is certainly possible that on many minor zoning and planning issues an SMD representative’s constituents will be essentially indifferent, it seems that in several of the new districts the newly empowered median voters would prefer packing density into the center city on either affordability (boost supply) or environmental grounds (reduce sprawl). A ‘strong’ version of the ward courtesy hypothesis just seems too deterministic and statistically implausible. For example, look at how many 4-3 votes there are on recent Austin City Councils – and these folks are elected by essentially the same voter universe!

It just seems highly unlikely that the new set of SMD median voters (and whatever policy entrepreneurs they unleash) will be utterly homogenous in their indifference to planning and zoning to the point that a perpetual tit-for-tat amongst legislators is possible.

Ward courtesy also contradicts available academic research.  In this Public Choice essay – which I cited in my previous blog post on empirical research on SMDs – the researchers found that for locally-undesirable land uses, the median legislator’s local constituents’ preferences are what matter.  I have yet to find any empirical research supporting a ‘ward courtesy’ finding, though I’d be glad to review and blog about anything readers might send my way.

It is totally possible that the new median voters will desire atrocious policies in some cases – I’d bet that supportive housing discourse from SMD reps is going to be more parochial and tough site decisions will have even more disgruntled voices represented at the council level.

But that’s not what a ‘ward courtesy’ system empowered by voter indifference looks like. The broader, messier discourse empowered by lower barriers to entry and a new set of median voters (instead of just the one of the status quo) is precisely the egalitarian disruption proponents are hoping for.

If one is interested in a truly greener, higher density center city, then a new set of low- barrier-to-entry districts with diverse median voters is likely to be the path with more upside for the issue than sticking with the current high-cost citywide-district with a pretty static median voter.

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9 Responses to Is “Ward Courtesy” Likely to Happen with SMDs?

  1. mdahmus says:

    The current council was elected in 7 different races at 2 or 3 different times with varying degrees of quality of opposition (and shifting coalitions – remember Leffingwell actually ran as the ANC candidate for mayor against McCracken!). You can’t presume based on 4-3 votes that the SMD results would be similar – I agree with Chris in that the response would likely be “NIMBY. Oh, this is in YOUR backyard? I’ll fight it if you fight everything in my backyard. Deal.”

  2. Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

    This post was probably a bit too jargon-y. I am not saying that SMD votes would be a proportion similar 4-3. I am saying that the 4-3 votes are further local evidence of the real constraints placed by the median voter – which is the key ingredient in my refutation of the assumptions of ward courtesy.

    All current council members were selected from the same citywide district. The 4-3s along with the Kim/Shade/Tovo progression show that the median voter theorem matters, and that the MV is volatile, and hardly a generally indifferent zombie. My point about it being essentially the same voter universe (as opposed to running for Congress during Presidential year vs. off year) was intended to show just how volatile/fickle and hence accountability-inducing the MV is.

    If you think about it, it’s actually the ‘ward courtesy’ rationale that is presuming something. Mainly, that a rather robust piece of democratic theory and empirical political science somehow breaks down for municipal planning and zoning decisions. This seems unlikely; and I provide a paper specifically supporting my niche application of the concept whereas I have yet to see any empirical evidence of ‘ward courtesy’. Maybe you have some really good anecdata about ward courtesy from your public service in Austin or elsewhere. But I’ve yet to even hear a good set of examples. I’d expect ward courtesy to exist where there’s an indifferent median voter. But is seems very difficult for this to be categorically true for planning and zoning; and if reciprocity breaks down, how will trust be re-established?

    Your hypothetical legislators can certainly make that ‘deal’, but if it doesn’t reflect the electorate, then they will lose. If they are interested in re-election, they wouldn’t make the deal. The much lower barrier to entry created by SMDs will make it a lot easier for presently marginal voices to relieve voters of their indifference. It just all adds up to a system that is very hostile to perpetual ward courtesy.

  3. I confess my bleak prediction is based on my experience with a single city, which I won’t identify except to say that it is a very large south-central Texas city with a ward-based city council.
    I am predicting that the median voter in “non-affected” districts will be indifferent or nearly so to zoning decisions made in the “affected” district (except perhaps for downtown, which has a broad city-wide constituency). That’s a purely subjective assessment, I confess. But if suburban voters are indeed indifferent to what happens in central Austin, then isn’t ward courtesy on zoning matters predictable?
    Do you know where I could find an ungated copy of the Public Choice essay (for my private use)?

  4. Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

    I would agree that if “suburban voters are indeed indifferent to what happens in Central Austin” there would be a good chance that ward courtesy might take hold of the bulk of zoning decisions. I just think that in a system with SMDs, there’s a new set of incentives that make it difficult for that indifference to endure. But political marketplaces fail all the time as in your experience in the large, south-central Texas city. I still prefer the resiliency afforded by adding some SMDs into our local mix. And I think the issues that the status quo overlooks are so extensive (e.g. shared prosperity/economic inequality), that risk of some sub-optimal zoning choices where the bulk of voters are pretty indifferent might be worth it, even if it annoys those of use who like tough choices in favor of good planning and zoning.

    If you get a chance to review the Public Choice essay, one thing you will find interesting and troubling is how they choose to classify what constitutes a desirable land use and what doesn’t, as well as the crude way that they determine a district’s preferences. Sadly, amongst the data set, there weren’t examples of things like landfill or large residential towers that are desirable to all but those affected. The things they looked at (parks, fire stations, libraries, community centers) seemed to be have public benefits that are very tightly coupled with geography, unlike the aforementioned landfill or residential tower. It’s also important to remember that they are considering the impact of both the size and method of election and trying to come up with a heuristic that explain when either or both (along with other factors) might matter.

  5. mdahmus says:

    Julio, I was trying to point out that some of those races were won by the non-NIMBY candidate not because the voters changed but because the candidates were on different relative positions.

    For instance, Galindo was a very weak candidate next to Morrison. But Riley was a very strong candidate (and thus even though Cavazos is not as irresponsible as Morrison, she didn’t stand a chance). The fact that the same voters elected Riley and Morrison doesn’t mean the voters are median; it means Galindo ran a horrible race.

    Leffingwell actually ran with the support of the ANC against McCracken, too. What does it mean if he faces Shea this time and has to win over the other half of the central electorate, and what does it mean if he wins versus fails? Does it say more about the electorate, or about who decided to run this time versus last time?

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      None of these winning candidates seem substantially out-of-sync with the citywide median voter. Said citywide median voter is resistant to significant increases in center city density because of the over-representation of a central Austin demographic in the at-large municipal voter universe. Has the trajectory of our central city development policy significantly changed as a result of any of these elections where campaign quality was an issue?

      These are not black and white differences in terms of policy we see in city council candidates. That the existing voter universe can get excited about the shades of gray of policy as if they were critical differences so as to produce 4-3 votes reiterate both the broad exclusion of many other policy directions and the focus on the relatively narrow sliver of fickle voters around the median that constrain policy. I like adding SMDs because we get a new set of potential median voters with quite different priorities.

      • mdahmus says:

        Honestly, the passage of McMansion and the wimping out on VMU are decisions made in the last 5 years which will affect the trajectory of the urban core for the next 20. And both of those passed narrowly (even if the actual votes weren’t narrow, the sentiment was).

        Also, Riley is so far away from Morrison that they might as well not be in the same universe. They mask the difference sometimes for their own political interest, but it’s a larger gulf than even the Circle C vs. SOS battles.

  6. Anonymous says:

    An example of ward courtesy:
    In 2005, Travis County Commissioners voted unanimously with Commissioner Daugherty for the design of Hamilton Pool Road to be added to a Bond Election. The Bond Election was approved in a city-wide vote, but Daugherty lost re-election. The new commissioner did not feel the roadway served her constituents well and the same Travis County Commissioners voted unanimously against the project when it came up for award in 2011.

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      Let’s accept the facts as you present them: Doesn’t sound like the Hamilton Pool Road is a locally-undesirable land use the way a downtown residential tower or landfill is, which is the focus of at least my discussion. So, I am not surprised that given that indifference, there’s a deferral to the local legislator. Perhaps this pattern will hold up.

      But perhaps they changed their mind because they felt their own median voters change preferences. We don’t know enough from these facts, which is why I trot out things like the Public Choice essay – it’s quite easy to fit anecdata to our bias.

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