City council members: elect them at large or by district?

Today (Nov. 4, that is), Seattle voters are deciding whether or not to enact Charter Amendment 5, which would change the way we elect city council members. Now, all 9 seats are filled in at-large elections – every seat is voted on by every voter.

The amendment would change things so that each seat represented a specific district of the city, so that each neighborhood had a particular representative on the council. This is apparently the most popular form of council elections in American cities.

People who support the change tend to argue that neighborhood issues are slighted in city politics, and that because every candidate is elected citywide, we tend to end up with a homogeneous council.

People opposed tend to argue that tying council members to particular districts will get us bogged down in inter-neighborhood bickering, and that the council will lose sight of big picture issues.

I know people have proposed a mixed council – some members elected at large, and some by district – but that’s not on the ballot.

Any Dopers have any leanings one way or the other? How does your city run, and do you like it that way? Seattle Dopers – how are you voting (if you want to share)?

I’m leaning towards approving the district system, but I’m persuadable.

I actually have no idea how (or if) I’m represented, because technically I live in the town of Madison as opposed to the city of Madison. In the city, however, we (they) elect alders (yes, we have named the members of our city council after a tree) by district. Splits tend to be liberal/conservative rather than neighborhood/neighborhood, but I don’t pay as close attention as I ought to.

Here is Houston, TX, we have council members in district positions and at-large positions. In fact, I went to the polls to vote today in the city election. Besides council members, we had the mayor, city controllers, a few propositions, etc.

Houston has 9 districts labeled A thru I each represented by a council member. We also have five at-large positions labeled 1 thru 5. Fun stuff, these elections are.

I voted yes. (According to the ballot-collecting machine, I was the thirteenth voter at my location. I like to do it early.)

The opposition’s position that I will now be voting for one representative instead of nine, and therefore I am losing eight votes, was the most compelling argument. However, you can just smell the money coming off the “no” campaign, which tells me all the downtown corporate interests are lined up against it. That gives credibility to the pro-district argument that a citywide councilmember must appeal to exactly the same constituency as the citywide-elected mayor, which creates centralized power brokers at the expense of neighborhood interests, and simultaneously undermines the anti-district position that separately elected councilmembers will be unable to stand up to a strong mayor. It’s not like our citywide council is able to stand up to him now, anyway. In addition, citywide elections are significantly more costly than district elections; it’s possible for a candidate to make a good showing in a district for a fraction of the price of earning a similar profile across the whole city.

The dealbreaker, though, for me, was the Seattle Times endorsement. In the last couple of years, they’ve just gone completely off the deep end with their editorial endorsements; in this election, they’ve hammered Nicastro on the stupidly petty “strippergate” thing, even though she did nothing wrong (and if you look at the actual zoning issue, she actually voted correctly), while they’ve given Compton a free pass on exactly the same scandal (even though his Vulcan-gift transgression is arguably worse). So when they said “no” to districts, that gave me a pretty strong shove in the “yes” direction.

Curious to hear about other opinions on this.

Oh, I forgot to mention one other thing: In addition to the “nine votes reduced to one” problem, the other big question in my mind that nearly convinced me to vote No is the fact that the districts haven’t actually been defined yet. In other words, we’re being asked to vote to separate ourselves into political areas without knowing what those areas are in advance. This could potentially be a disaster, especially considering Seattle’s preference for “nice” politics over getting-shit-done politics; we could easily descend into a passive-aggressive, time-wasting argument about how the neighborhoods should be grouped and/or separated. West Seattle? Easy. Magnolia and Queen Anne? Easy. Capitol Hill? Er, does that go with First Hill or the U-District? Or should the U-District go with Wallingford? And… uh…

In the end, though, I decided to vote Yes. The actual language of the charter amendment has a deadline by which the plan must be implemented, so it’s not like we can stretch it out indefinitely. We have to make a decision, for good or ill.

(I should also mention, I don’t think it’s going to pass, so my concerns are largely academic.)

It’s not a bad point – but my one vote just got 8 times more powerful, since I’m part of a smaller pool of eligible voters. So I think it’s a wash, power-of-my-vote-wise.

Yeah, when all else is equal, a Times endorsement is a turnoff to me, too.

One other thing that will probably disappear in Seattle is the habit of wannabe council members picking on whomever they think is the weakest opponent, rather than someone with contrasting opinions. It’s kind of ridiculous, for example, that (former Times columnist) Jean Godden is challenging Judy Nicastro – they’re both fairly progressive voices, and even Godden can’t really come up with major philosophical differences between the two of them. I’d rather have seen Godden throw her star power against Jim Compton, who got in part because of his own media career and who is a sharper contrast to Godden’s stated positions.

Of course, there’s part of me that thinks this won’t make much of a difference either way, but I’m voting regardless.

I will be voting no.
(I go after work)

I probably would vote yes if it were to split the council between at large and district positions, but as you said, that’s not on the ballot.

There are problems with the current system…there are areas of the city that are very overrepresented (and as a corollary, sections that don’t get the representation they deserve.) and no, that’s not fair. And something should be done about that.

But I don’t like the idea of only having one person on the council to go to (if I were to need to go to the council). I can easily imagine being in a district where my council member and I differ on an issue and effectively being shut out, as none of the other council members even needs to listen to me (I don’t vote for them, they’re representing others). While now, I can pick and choose which of the nine are most favorable to whatever my issue is, as they all (arguably) must answer to me.

Agreeing with the Times does makes me think twice. But I dealt with the council for a while when I was involved with a non-profit. Districts would have killed us before we even started.

Historically, at-large elections are a method used to maintain majority control and prevent a minority from having any representation.

When elections are done in districts, it is likely that there will be some district with enough population that is black, hispanic, hmong, gay, whatever, that they have a chance to elect someone from their community to office. (Courts will, if needed, make sure that redistricting is not fiddled to split minority communities, etc.)

But in an at-large election system, the majority can always outvote the minority, and prevent them from electing anyone from their community.

Also, at-large elections make it much harder for any small, upstart candidate. In a district, a candidate who works hard enough can visit most of the voters’ homes, and talk to them personally. At Large, that’s usually not possible, so the candidate has to buy TV/radio or newspaper advertising, or pay for mailing literature citywide. Thus at-large elections favor candidates with more money.

Also, at-large elections make endorsements from newspapers, and from political parties and activist groups are more important, since voters are less likely to meet candidates personally.

Finally, at-large elections tend to result in more “sound bites” and less real debate over issues. Just because the increased number of candidates makes it harder to hold any public debates. In a district system, there are usually only a couple of candidates, so in a debate they each have time to discuss issues more.

On the other hand, district systems can have problems in actually running the city after the elections. Electees can become very parochial, concerned only with how this will affect their district, and ignoring the good of the city as a whole. There is also the tendency for a ‘district veto’ courtesy to start operating, where the council will vote down any zoning waiver, etc. if the council member from that district opposes it. This can lead to extortion-like types of corruption.

Well, Since I’m from back east, I can just tell you how we handle things here in ol New York. As you know, the city is broken up into 5 boroughs-Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx. Each has a Borough president, and seats on the city council. The districts are pretty small, usually covering only one neibourhood. In a city of this size, its amazing how close these elections get, coming down to 10 votes in some cases. Because of that, City Councilpeople are very responsive to the needs of their constituents. While the Borough presidents (mostly) aren’t, and the mayor is very very removed. Don’t know if this shed any light on the situation, and even if It did its a day late. But its my 2 cents for what its worth

I should also point out that their is more competion to be on the City council then the state assembly as the council has a bigger budget. Kinda funny when you think about it.