This story by Brandon Roberts in the Austin Cut examines the policy substance tied up in the competing city council election designs at a much higher granularity than previous media coverage. It was a good effort and the author clearly put a lot of time into. However, the piece missed several pieces of information that potentially explain its stilted voting recommendation. I group the missed pieces into key issue areas below:
Political viability of hybrid vs. exclusively SMD approach
The piece leaves out the complete history about the past viability of both 10-0-1 and 8-2-1. I provided the author with the chart below detailing the election date, council election design, and percent of the vote in support.
It is inaccurate to imply that 8-2-1 is unique in getting ‘its ass kicked’ by the voters. Both approaches experienced difficulty. It’s hard to say what might be more viable today based on elections so long ago. Hence, we should pick the best policy since it’s definitely not clear that either approach is the clear political winner – in fact, they have both been losers. If the hybrid vote attempt had earned a substantially different vote share than the four exclusively SMD votes, then that might be an argument against over-optimizing. But that is just not the facts.
Empirical support for an Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC)
The piece provides one anecdote from a local attorney/redistricting consultant arguing that political boundary-drawing often is intended to (a) help one group over another and (b) is intended to help incumbents. Incumbent protection is not really an issue in Austin because of term limits. The value added by an IRC in this case is marginal – still a reason to vote for the AGR proposal, but hardly a reason to vote against the hybrid proposal.
Moreover, while we all have our favorite ‘bad’ groups and special interests we would like to protect against through a redistricting process, how can we be certain that it won’t be our ‘good’ groups that will be disproportionately hurt? Specifically, no matter the mechanism for redistricting, it will become increasingly difficult to draw an African-American SMD without using the types of creative boundaries that are often decried as ‘gerrymanders’. I expressed concern to Roberts about the lack of Latino geographic dispersion in Austin and how that creates significant risks to descriptive and substantive representation if we just draw a couple of squares on the East side.
Randomness in the selection of IRC members does not necessarily translate into substantive fairness because there is absolutely no randomness whatsoever in the process of applying to be selected. It would have been useful for the Roberts to apply equal levels of scrutiny to the theorized benefits of the IRC, especially since the incredibly limited data we have from California indicates that while it is an improvement, it can certainly can be gamed. Austin lobbyists, civic groups, and entities with a stake in public budgeting will have plenty of seemingly independent friends and relatives that can meet IRC criteria while being loyal to those they have social ties to.
The IRC is well-intentioned and a likely improvement, but there seems to be such modest benefits that it doesn’t justify disqualifying a vote for the hybrid. Especially since we might need some creative gerrymanders to achieve things Austinites care about, such as providing opportunities for African-American representation.
The piece’s central fiscal argument is this: “Also keep in mind that no research shows that at-large council members can stop the spending increase.” The emphasis is mine.
If we focus on the word ‘stop’ then the statement is true. Not even a strong mayor with veto power is likely to stop the effect of increasing seat size. But that is not our position; we argue that having some at-large seats will help create relatively better fiscal stewardship than an exclusively SMD system.
Given the amount of time I spent discussing fiscal stewardship with the piece’s author, I was surprised by the limited detail provided by the piece on this topic. It only covers one of the three research essays I’ve highlighted in the white paper and other writings in support of our fiscal stewardship argument. The Langbein piece, which finds that SMDs lead to higher spending, and the Sass & MacDonald essay that finds a similar, but diminishing effect of higher SMD spending. In terms of Baqir, I specifically indicated to Roberts that Baqir’s modeling assumed first-past-the-post multi-member systems where the at-large members can win seats powered by a relatively narrow base of 20% of the vote (e.g Boston).
This is precisely why the 8-2-1 proposition features citywide seats. Since we have an instant run-off system, the electoral incentives of the legislators resemble those of the citywide mayors that Baqir and the other authors associate with relative spending restraint. To be clear, citywide at-large seats are not as effective as a veto-empowered strong mayors and there’s a non-zero chance that they are essentially the same as SMDs.
But the Baqir quote in the Cut’s story should have this context; I know it is too much to ask for the piece to explain the nuances of Baqir’s Table 7. On the other hand, I don’t think it is accurate to imply to readers that there’s no difference on fiscal stewardship by creating a tangential, artificially high standard that no hybrid proponent ever claimed would be met.
I might be misreading the tone, but given the piece’s voting recommendation for a 10-0-1 plan it seems that the author accepts that a 10-0-1 plan with an IRC can somehow simultaneously provide optimal descriptive representation to African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans while also ensuring that district boundaries are neighborhood-focused. It also appears that the empirical evidence of bias against white women by SMDs is not found to be an important item to be weighed against exclusively supporting 10-0-1.
It was extremely disappointing that Roberts did not aggressively press AGR for release of the census tracts used in their hypothetical calculations, or independently explore whether these many promises can indeed be satisfied at the same time. As I have argued in the past, the most honest 10-0-1 maps available come from the Austin Neighborhoods Council, and they make it clear that it’s already very tough to draw an African-American opportunity (as opposed to majority) district because the densest African-American concentrations happen in areas that are majority Latino, and hence, are also important to optimizing Latino representation.
This dilemma will only get tougher as the presently foreign-born Latino cohort is replaced by Latinos that are born here or naturalized. Moreover, the piece seems to accept AGR’s punt on Asian-American representation by re-stating their position that it’s not impossible for an Asian-American to be elected from an SMD, and hence there is no need to engage the requests from the Asian-American community for an at-large safety valve.
Latino substantive representation
The piece does not engage the distinction between Latino substantive and descriptive representation. The likeliest problem that an emerging Austin Latino majority would face under an all SMD approach is that boundary-drawing risks constraining the substantive influence of Latinos. Specifically, as I explained to the author and have detailed in other places, under an exclusively at-large or a hybrid system, a Latino majority is automatic in all future citywide districts once the group becomes the majority of the city’s population. There is no risk of boundary-drawing undercutting the majority. This point is not engaged by the piece; instead, it solely focuses on descriptive representation. In the short-term, the Latino population will probably be slightly better served by an exclusively SMD system (though it all depends on the boundaries drawn) in the next election cycle or two. But even that advantage very quickly and aggressively dissipates, even more so if Latinos do not geographically disperse.
Roberts acknowledges this final point by including the statement: “Single member districts don’t necessarily harm large, dispersed Hispanic populations, though”. But the piece does not carry the caveat to its logical conclusion. As I pointed out in the white paper and at Burnt Orange Report, the last ten years feature Austin Latino population share growth without dispersion. This problem is the foundation of our skepticism that an SMD approach is optimal for ensuring fair Latino descriptive and substantive representation in the long-term. What happens if dispersion does not happen, as it has failed to happen in Austin? The article does not consider this possibility.
The story doesn’t really engage the pro-hybrid evidence on constituent services at all. To summarize: officials elected from an SMD are likely to prioritize the constituent services of their coalition. If you are outside of the median voter or the winning coalition, or are pro-actively part of the opposing coalition, then your constituent service request is unlikely to be served. This is not that difficult to understand – if you are a southwest Austin progressive Democrat represented by Republican on council, you realize that your representative might not prioritize your requests.
Further, the research by Butler and Broockman shared with the author makes two findings that raise the stakes of this dynamic: elected officials treat service requests by constituents differently depending on race and constituents initiate requests at different rates depending on the race of their representative. These important arguments for citywide representatives were not engaged in the story.
Instead, the brief engagement of this topic trails off by asking a rhetorical question about whether renters and people with disabilities have been particularly well-represented in substantive policy by at-large districts. As I and others have discussed in other places, it is unlikely that SMDs will lead to the empowerment of a particularly enlightened median voter that is excited to boost affordable rental supply within their neighborhood or eagerly zone mental health support facilities. Certainly these groups are marginal under at-large, but it’s not clear why Roberts believes they will fare particularly better under the likely NIMBYism empowered by SMD median voters.
An unjustified voting recommendation
“In this case, any change will be better than keeping things the way they are.”
That’s how the author starts the Cut’s story. But given this, the piece’s conclusion – voting exclusively for 10-0-1 – was a bit of a surprise. Roberts’ analysis led the reader to believe that he found the issues complex and the plans to be fairly similar when compared to the status quo.
But then at the end, it seems clear that Roberts’ supports the AGR proposal because of the remarkable value attributed to theorized effects of the IRC.
This implies that the problems Roberts grants arise from an exclusively SMD approach (e.g. the bias against white women, higher spending, Asian-American concerns) are an acceptable tradeoff and/or concludes that the promise of amorphous and unproven benefits of the IRC are enough to justify exclusively voting in support of the AGR 10-0-1 proposal and against the 8-2-1 proposal.
This seems a bit of a stilted recommendation to me and perhaps that is why it was made so coyly. It was particularly surprising given that the author chastises those of us that are providing multivariate regressions based on thousands of empirical observations as ‘theoretical’ but bases his exclusive support for Proposition 3 on a theory about the IRC’s benefits based on an single anecdote about a vague problem that doesn’t even cover why the IRC would be an effective solution.
In any event, the IRC’s benefits over council-approved redistricting are modest (especially if the Voting Rights Act stays in effect) and unrelated to the substantive issues raised by hybrid proponents and reiterated above. This further deepens the importance of voting for both – or to borrow from the author’s reasoning, why let the unproven, but supposed perfection of the IRC be the enemy of the good the hybrid provides over the status quo?