What's the Best Way to Elect a City Council?

Every system has its own set of drawbacks.

Seattle City Council
It’s surprisingly difficult to design a method for electing city councils that are fully representative. If you elect your city council by district, as Chicago and Philadelphia do, you risk having members who are too parochial in their outlooks, with limited incentives to think about the city as a whole. Conversely, electing council members through citywide elections runs the risk of leaving parts of the city unattended. 

Courts have ruled against the latter, particularly councils that ignore areas heavily populated with members of protected racial or ethnic groups. Last year, Yakima, Wash., withdrew its appeal against a ruling that found that its prior system of electing council members citywide disenfranchised Hispanics. Up until that ruling, no Latino had ever won a seat on the council. After it, though, three Latinos won district elections in 2015.

Many big cities try to combine the two approaches, electing some council members by district and others citywide. In Seattle, for example, voters in 2013 approved a change that switched the council from having all nine members elected citywide to one in which seven members run by district and two remain at-large.

But the oldest hybrid system may belong to Tucson, Ariz. Since 1929, it has nominated each of the six council members by ward, then each runs citywide in the general election. That means members have to stay alert both to parochial concerns such as zoning and constituent services, while also bearing in mind the city’s needs as a whole when it comes to budgets and public safety. “The way we do this makes us work harder to represent the entire city on citywide issues,” says Councilman Steve Kozachik, “and makes us have to go and do the legwork and listen to the concerns of people in our own community.”

It’s not a system without its critics, however. In 2009, Arizona passed a law to abolish Tucson’s system. Three years later, the state Supreme Court voided that law, finding that Tucson had the right under its charter to elect its council by a method of its own choosing.

But the story doesn’t end there. A group of local citizens filed a new legal challenge, arguing that residents of some wards are still disenfranchised. “Most of the residents in wards 2 and 4 are Republicans,” says Bruce Ash, a complainant in the case, “and the elections are being decided by Democrats who live on the other side of town in wards 1, 3, 5 and 6.”

The argument that the hybrid system violated equal protection for all voters prevailed once in federal court. But in September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Tucson’s method. “All voters in Tucson have an equal right to vote, both during the primary election and during the general election,” the court found. An appeal is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, but it’s not considered likely that the justices will vote to take up the case.

Alan Greenblatt is a Governing senior staff writer. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.