American Cities and the Cure for Machine Mischief

Cities keep lurching between electing their governing bodies from districts and choosing them at large. The district approach is gaining, but its fragmentation doesn't promote a broad view of community needs.

Ald. Anthony Beale speaks during a Chicago city council meeting. The 50-member city council is elected by wards and has governed well over the decades. (Photo: Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Cincinnati isn't especially unusual for a large American city, except in one way: It is perpetually unable to figure out what kind of government it wants. I'm not talking about ideological differences. I'm talking about the most basic rules for how people get elected, how voters express their desires, and how the necessary political institutions are supposed to organize themselves.

This has been going on for nearly a century now. Prior to 1925, the city had 26 council members elected by wards and six chosen at large. The wards were outposts of machine politics, petty corruption and endless logrolling, and public business wasn't conducted very well. So local corporate interests pushed through a new system with just nine council members, all of them elected at large, by the whole city. This cut down on machine mischief, but it allowed the affluent neighborhoods to outvote the others and elect the entire council, which was then largely governed by an appointed business-friendly city manager.

This began to seem an anachronism in the late 20th century, so in the 1980s the residents tried again. To balance the power of the city manager, Cincinnati created a system in which the top vote-getter on the council became mayor. This was about as bad a choice as you could make. It gave the nine elected legislators incentive to grandstand and denigrate their colleagues in hopes of finishing first in the next election.

Then, in 2001, the city's voters made an atypically sensible move: They created a strong mayor, elected directly by the people. This was better. But Cincinnati kept tinkering. In 2012, it extended the length of council terms from two years to four. In 2018, voters decided to move the terms back to two years.

Despite all this electoral back and forth, the city still has the century-old council of nine members elected at large. As you might guess by now, there is a move to change it yet again. A group called Fair Cincy spent much of this year pushing a new system with five members elected by wards and four chosen at large. This summer they tried and failed to get the issue on the November ballot. But it seems inevitable that the effort will continue.

It isn't only Cincinnati that has been suffering from representational obsession. Nearly a decade ago, St. Louis voters passed an initiative shrinking the number of aldermen from 28 to 14. This seemed to make sense: The population of St. Louis had declined by more than half since the 1950s. If 28 aldermen were right for a city of 800,000, 14 should be plenty for 300,000. But for technical reasons, the change isn't supposed to take effect until 2023. So the city has now spent nearly a decade arguing over efforts to repeal the change and go back to the original 28. There's a movement to do that by referendum right now.

I KNOW ALL THIS SOUNDS A BIT ARCANE, but these things make a huge difference. While at-large representation tends to foster unity and relative political peace, it sometimes leaves substantial areas of the city without a voice. Choosing lawmakers by district gives each corner of a city more clout, but often leads to squabbling, balkanization, gerrymandering and in recent years, racial tension. There are plenty of examples of this. But they point in more than one direction.

Back in 1966, the mayor of Dallas, Erik Jonsson, decided that the city needed a new program for the next several years. He invited the eight council members, all elected at-large, for a weekend at a local country club retreat. By the time they went home, they had worked out an entire decade or more of public policy. Dallas functioned fairly well in the years that followed, but it's hard to argue that this is the way city councils should operate. And in 1971, the city moved to a mixed system of district-level and at-large elections. Eventually it created a council with 14 members, all chosen by local districts. You can't say that this process has ruined Dallas, and it has brought previously unrepresented neighborhoods into positions of influence, but it created a fragmented legislative body with a cauldron of rivalries — geographical, racial, partisan and ideological. It's hard to argue that this was the right answer either.

Nevertheless, what has happened in Dallas prefigured a wave. The overwhelming trend in recent decades has been to scrap at-large municipal government for district-based systems. There were excellent reasons for this. Dozens of southern cities and smaller towns were using at-large elections to keep Black neighborhoods unrepresented. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 gradually put an end to that practice. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called at-large elections "a way to deny equal opportunity." In Alabama, in the case of Dillard v. Crenshaw County, most local at-large government was struck down by a U.S. District Court. Within a few years, 183 of the state's jurisdictions had changed their rules. The same thing happened in nearby states. Charleston, S.C., was sued in 2001 under the Voting Rights Act and reached a settlement three years later. By the mid-2010s, its all-white at-large council had evolved into a nine-member body with three Black representatives speaking for the city's one-third Black population.

This didn't just happen in the South. In 2013, under intense neighborhood pressure, Seattle switched from all at-large to mostly district representation. This has largely accomplished its intended purpose of broadening neighborhood influence. But the result has not been pretty. A series of mayors has endured virtually constant turmoil and stalemate with a highly fragmented legislative body.

Of course, you don't have to elect everybody by ward or district. Philadelphia, like many cities, has a hybrid system: seven at-large, 10 by district. But over the years, this hasn't stopped the "District 10" from exercising parochial vetoes over the most important reforms mayors have wanted to implement. For decades, the council refused to allow a badly needed reassessment of residential properties because it would lead to higher property taxes. This forced Philadelphia to raise required revenue from an assortment of awkward and counterproductive alternative taxes, most notably a tax on labor that succeeded mainly in causing businesses to leave the city. Hybrid systems don't work very well if they fall victim to deeply entrenched norms of local political culture.

In the hands of unusually skillfully politicians, however, there are ways around any of these systems. You might be surprised to learn that Chicago, widely associated with "boss rule," isn't exactly a strong-mayor city. The 50-member city council, elected by wards, has a lot of the formal powers. When the council was able to exercise those powers, as it did in the late 1940s and much of the 1980s, the result was balkanization and endless bickering. The reason this hasn't always been the case was the presence for more than 40 years of the two Mayor Daleys, father and son. The elder Daley held control over the nomination of Democratic aldermen in nearly all the neighborhoods of the city, virtually guaranteeing their loyalty to him. Daley the younger dominated the council in large part because he had the authority to choose candidates himself in cases of vacancy, and there were so many vacancies that at one point Daley had hand-picked almost half of the aldermen.

Chicago remains a target of criticism in much of the country for its history of violent crime and its perceived racial bigotry. Much of that is justified. But I think it's inescapable that the city has been far better governed over much of the last 65 years by a makeshift at-large autocracy than it would have been by a squabbling, horse-trading collection of aldermen presiding over ward fiefdoms.

AT THE MOMENT, the issue of district vs. at-large representation is resurfacing in the community where I live. Arlington County, Va., has been governed since 1930 by five board members chosen at large in staggered elections. For most of this history, the five in office at any given time have worked quietly together, making decisions unanimously and rarely arguing in front of the public. But this has led to periodic complaints that Arlington government is somehow "rigged," with little opportunity for dissent and little influence available to minorities and certain parts of the county.

There's no doubt that this system concentrated power in its early years among a few affluent white neighborhoods. It's likely that this was its purpose. But that hasn't been a problem in a long time. In fact, the northwest Arlington neighborhoods that used to run things are among those pushing the idea that at-large government has cheated them. Three African Americans have been among the 22 most recent candidates chosen for the board, which works out to about 14 percent in a county that is 9 percent Black overall. It's hard to see that as rank discrimination. As one former board chairman likes to say, "We have numerous distinct neighborhoods, but we have only one community."

Let's see if I can make the leap from the minutiae of county elections to the broad reaches of political theory. That requires a detour into the political thought of James Madison. In the constitutional convention of 1787 and in the Federalist Papers that he wrote afterward, Madison pleaded for big constituencies — ones that would be large enough to include a diverse array of interests and avoid the parochialism of narrowly drawn electorates. "Extend the sphere," Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 10. "and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens." Madison was right about many things; this was one of them.

It's indisputable that at-large elections were once used to disenfranchise weak segments of a community. But those days are over. The danger now isn't secret manipulation by men who own banks and meet over drinks at country clubs. The danger is fragmentation and the parochial politics of lawmakers who speak for unyielding parochial electorates.

We have a desperate need for legislative bodies whose members take a broad view and think first about the interests of the community as a whole. We aren't going to abolish districts; they are now the norm in most of the country. But we ought to think twice before we make a whole lot more of them.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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