Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Are Richardson's Voting Districts in Need of Change?

The Richardson City Charter calls for a review of the city's voting district boundaries every ten years, making adjustments based on US Census results to ensure that the four districts have similar population size.

During the election campaign, one idea that all council candidates were open to was formation of a citizens' commission to review and make recommendations to update the Richardson City Charter. Some candidates were champing at the bit to do it; some were merely willing to go along with it if it's the will of the people. It is likely that *something* will have to be done.

If we already know we have to adjust the district boundaries in any case, and we're likely to open the Pandora's Box of a full City Charter review, should we consider making dramatic changes to how Richardson elects its City Council?

Let's discuss, after the jump.

Richardson has what I'll call a 4-3-0 system for electing its City Council. There are seven members, all of whom are elected at large by all voters in the city. The city is divided into four geographic districts. Four of the seats on the council have to be filled by someone who lives in the district represented by the council member (that's the "4"). The other three seats can be filled by council members residing anywhere in the city (that's the "3"). The voters do not elect the mayor (that's the "0") who instead is chosen by the seven council members from among their own ranks.

I've already discussed the pros and cons of Richardson's method of selecting its mayor. (On balance, I think the pros of the current system outweigh the cons. In other words, I'm in favor of keeping our Mayor "0".) In this blog post, I want to discuss the other parts of the 4-3-0 formula.

By having all seven council members elected at large, the current system has successfully avoided creating or exacerbating regional divides. Only by appealing to residents across the city as a whole can a candidate assemble the votes needed to be elected by the electorate at large. A large majority in one geographic region of the city can't win it for a candidate who is unpopular in the rest of the city. The result is a city council made up of candidates with broad appeal across the city as a whole. That's good.

But in cases where a political divide already exists, an at-large system can be exploited to suppress the minority. For example, a 51% majority of whites voting in a bloc for white candidates can stack a council with all white council members, even if the city as a whole is 49% black or brown. That's not Richardson's case, but if it were, that would be bad.

To address that possibility, Dallas has what's known as a 14-1 system, with fourteen single-member districts and the mayor elected at large. Because the racial and ethnic population is not geographically distributed evenly, such a system results in better representation for minorities.

Richardson doesn't have the geographical segregation that would call for replacing its at-large voting system for racial and ethnic reasons. But are there other advantages to having single-member districts? Jim Schutze of Unfair Park suggests there are:

"A district that saddles itself with a politically ineffectual representative is in for two years of absolute Siberia at City Hall. If the council member can't schmooze and get the deal done, there is no deal to do.

"That's why I always cringe a little when I hear people criticizing the single-member district council system. I know it has its flaws, but I'll tell you what: You take away that system, deprive the council members of their hegemony in their own districts, and nobody will ever be able to get City Hall off the dime."

Schutze is drawing on his experience in Dallas. Is there a lesson in there for Richardson?

There is a vocal minority who thinks that the city doesn't listen to them. One candidate for city council said this in so many words during one of the candidate forums. So, if there's an issue that's particularly relevant to your neighborhood, you need a champion at city hall to fight for you. Who better to be responsive to a neighborhood concern than a council member chosen by, and only by, voters in that neighborhood?

On the other hand, yesterday's voting analysis of voting results suggests that the new City Council members were popular all across the city: east and west, all districts, almost all precincts. It's not like neighborhood champions are getting voted down by the city at large. If neighborhood champions are running, they aren't even winning their own districts. None of the losing candidates would have a seat on the City Council under a single-member district system like Dallas's.

How much of that is because of a city-wide consensus regarding Richardson politics and how much is because Richardson's 4-3-0 system keeps neighborhood champions from running in the first place? That's hard to tease out of the election results. But as long as voters in Richardson continue to show largely consistent attitudes from neighborhood to neighborhood all across the city, I see no compelling reason to mess with the 4-3-0 system.

1 comment:

Mark Steger said...

Above, Jim Schutze makes the argument for single member districts (SMD). It's the neighborhood champion argument. Just this week, Schutze highlights what can go wrong. What happens when your single member isn't in your corner? You're screwed because no other council member will step up to help you.

"Under our single-member district City Council system in Dallas, any decision like this to physically change a street and significantly alter traffic flow through a neighborhood of voters is totally up to the council member for that district. In this case we are talking about District 6 council member Monica Alonzo. By allowing this change to be made in a street in her district, Alonzo is completely screwing her own constituents in the poor Mexican neighborhood about to be turned into an Indy 500 cut-through for the apartment traffic."