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How At-Large Voting Causes Low Voter Turn-out and Less Representative Government

posted in: Government, Opinion
In 2017 there were five challengers who campaigned hard and spent money on signs. Just one of them won –  to fill the single vacancy. All the incumbents won.

I expect to hear lamentations about poor voting turn-out for this year’s City Council elections, but let’s be honest. With no real challenger, it’s to be expected. (The single challenger, Bill Orleans, has tried before and fared badly.) The only reason to vote is to influence the Council’s subsequent choice of mayor, traditionally the top vote-getter for Council.

In the last election we DID have serious challenges to incumbents by well qualified candidates, but no incumbents lost.  In fact, last incumbent to lose was Richard Pilski, a 20-year Council member, in 1985. Source.

In 2019 there’s no vacancy, and no challengers to be seen.

The current Council members have served:

  • Ed Putens – 38 years
  • Rodney Roberts – 28 years
  • J Davis – 26 years
  • Leta Mach – 16 years
  • Emmett Jordan – 10 years (winning one of 2 seats added in 2009)
  • Silke Pope – 10 years (winning the other new seat)
  • Colin Byrd – 2 years (filling the seat vacated by retiring Councilman Konrad Herling)

I first mentioned those long terms in this post from 2017, recommending bullet voting as a way to elect challengers. Obviously that had no effect and as I’ve since learned, seldom does. “‘Bullet voting,’ using only one of their nine votes and casting it for their top choice, can give that candidate a better chance, but this rarely succeeds.” Source.

At-Large Voting as Incumbent Protection Plan

The voting rights group Nonprofit Vote.org writes about this problem in “The Bias of At-Large Elections” (bold in the original)

If you want to rig a local election, there’s an easier way than stuffing a ballot box, gerrymandering a district, or amassing a campaign war chest to scare off challengers. Have your city or county adopt winner-take-all “At-Large” voting, where, instead of using districts, all or most council or school committee candidates must run “at large, city or countywide.

Congress has banned At-Large voting for all federal elections. It’s been discarded by most states. No voting method has been subject to more litigation for its discriminatory impact on local elections. Yet, while the covers are off the discriminatory impact and intent of At-Large voting, it persists in hundreds of local jurisdictions.

Advantages to incumbents include the obvious benefit of name recognition, which is even greater when voting is city-wide.  Challengers need to spend more money and time to campaign successfully than if they ran for single districts. Residents are ill-served by such barriers to entry for elected officials.

At-large Voting Dilutes Minority Votes, Causes Under-Representation

Under-representation of certain parts of cities is a well-documented result of at-large voting and is evident in Greenbelt’s results, too, with its inadequate representation from such areas as Greenbelt West. In response to objections by the ACLU, NAACP, Fair Vote and others to Greenbelt’s all-white council, two new seats were added. The real solution would have been to switch to district representation (or at least a mix of district and at-large), which would guarantee representation by not just minority populations but also (obviously) by all parts of the city.

The New York Times notes that

With increasing frequency, Federal courts in the South are ordering local governments to abandon at-large election systems as racially discriminatory…The current legal trend is so pronounced that some local governments using at-large systems are now agreeing to negotiate single districts to better reflect racial divisions for local boards or councils.

Mixed systems that combine districts and at-large representation are surviving court challenge, and seem to be the way cities are moving.

Difference in Accountability of Council Members

I lived with district representation for my 26 years in Takoma Park and I’ve gotta say I miss having one council member who represents just my part of town, who’s in regular contact with all of us and is on top of our concerns.   Here in Greenbelt, with everyone representing everyone, the difference is striking.

Takoma Park’s council has a healthy amount of turnover, too.

Some Greenbelters have mentioned on social media their belief that at-large council members serve the public better, but have they experienced the other system? I looked in vein for research that asked people who’d experienced both systems which they preferred and found nothing but this statement from citizens of a city in Washington:

“Voting Districts Improve Quality of Life:
Research indicates that serving a broad constituency reduces an elected official’s accountability.”

Another oddity with Greenbelt’s system is the aforementioned selection of the mayor by the newly elected Council members, who traditionally choose the top vote-getter. I don’t understand how this could possibly be better than a directly elected mayor – someone who runs head-to-head with others for that particular job.

A Chance to Weigh In

I was pleased to see that this topic is a “Current Question” in the Community Questionnaire 2919 we’re given when we vote. (It can also be filled out online.) The city’s website doesn’t mention a deadline but a staffer in the City Manager’s office told me we have until two weeks after the election to submit our answers.

Question #1 is:

Should Greenbelt switch from its current at-large system (each council member is elected by and represents all of Greenbelt) to districts (each council member is elected by and represents one specific geographical area)?

Choices are yes, no, and “don’t know.” We’re not given the option of choosing “A mixture of the two,” which is the system being commonly implemented after legal challenges. In such mixed systems generally the mayor and one or two council members are elected at-large.

But there’s plenty of room on the back of the form for us to really weigh in.

What about Term Limits?
Term limited are often suggested for Council members but they’re really a band-aid, not a fix to the problem. But if we continue to have all-at-large voting, term limits would go a long way toward opening up slots for new faces, new voices, and hopefully – though there’s no guarantee – more inclusive representation. I think 10-year terms would be plenty; that’s the figure proposed by the popular but failed 2017 candidate George Boyce, founder of Greenbelt MakerSpace.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

  1. John
    | Reply

    I personally favor a mix of at-large and district seats for municipal and council elections.

    If we converted 4 of those at-large seats to district seats, every resident of the city would still have the ability to cast a vote for a majority of seats on the council (3 at-large plus their own district).

    I also find it strange that our mayoral selection process–whereby the top vote-getter traditionally takes the job of mayor–frankly bizarre and vulnerable to abuse. If that’s the process (and I’m not sure it should be), it should be enshrined in the city code. Of course, if we were to adopt districts, we’d need to give the mayoral selection process a fresh look as well.

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