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Single Member Districts – A Good Idea Whose Time May Never Come

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There has been some talk here in Austin recently about the possibility of the city switching from an at large system of election for city council members to a system based on single member districts where council members would represent specific areas of the city. This is nothing new. Debate over this issue has been going on since at least the 1970s and the idea has never come close to implementation. Today Austin remains the largest city in the nation where all of its city council members are elected at large.

There's a reason why single member districts get talked about a lot here in Austin and seem to never become a reality. The current system always wins out because it protects the power of a small group of white, wealthy elitists who live in a few key Austin neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Tarrytown and come out to vote in large numbers and control every election and every seat on the city council. Since they are also the ones who would have to approve putting single member districts on the ballot they have no motivation to do so and risk losing the power which they have.

Instead they make hypocritical concessions to inclusiveness under a so-called "gentleman's agreement" by allowing the occasional hand-picked Hispanic or black who shares their leftist ideology onto the council. Then they can say to groups who object to being disenfranchised that they have a "historically Hispanic" seat or a "historically black" seat reserved for them, but it's never given to someone elected by that community. The seat instead goes to someone picked by the leftist elite whose loyalties are to their ideology, not to the minority community. It's classic Uncle Tomism as only the political left can practice it.

This problem has become more serious in recent years as the controlling elite in the city has gained more and more access to wealth through their alliance with real estate developers who are profiting from the efforts to move population downtown and build the city up instead of building out. This "smart growth" agenda promoted by the city council has given them powerful allies in the business community and made many of them wealthy and advanced their political careers to higher levels. It's a corrupting influence which provides another incentive against establishing a more equitable political system in the city.

The latest mutterings about single member districts come in the wake of the recent LULAC convention here in Austin. LULAC has repeatedly made a point of their concern about the lack of adequate Hispanic representation on the city council and they have a very valid point. Similar complaints have been raised repeatedly over the years by the NAACP, the East Side Coalition and other African-American leaders and groups.

If single member districts were established they would likely result in a minimum of one reliable black seat on the council and two Hispanic seats. The problem for the city council is that fair districts would likely also result in at least one seat going to another disenfranchised minority, west Austin Republicans and conservatives. Most scary of all, non-ethnic leftists would probably become a minority on the council, and who knows what kind of dreadful policies like fiscal responsibility and actually holding city employees responsible for their actions might result from that.

Yes, some city council members are talking about putting single member districts on the ballot. But I don't have any faith at all that it will happen. There is every reasonable argument in favor of it, but when weighed on the scales of those in power I do not believe that giving equal representation to all of the citizens of the city outweighs their desire to hold onto political power and keep the city dominated by a cabal of like-minded individuals who wield power primarily to benefit themselves and their cronies. They've got a sweet deal going and short of intervention by the federal government I doubt they're likely to give it up.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Dave, I was puzzled more along the lines of how a small group of elitists (very small, if one sticks to the strict definition of the word elite) managed to vote in large numbers.

    I’m well aware of how a small, well-organised group can influence policy. As to influencing elections, well, in Cannon’s example I rather think the 1980 election influenced the Religious Right, rather than the other way round. They would have supported Carter in a heartbeat if they’d felt he was more sympathetic to their interests and had looked like he might win.

    An interest group will concentrate their efforts wherever their interests are best furthered – the obvious example would be the black electorate, which used to vote almost exclusively Republican because it was the party of Lincoln but now leans overwhelmingly Democrat because of the GOP’s resistance to the Civil Rights Act.

    In the case of Austin, it seems more likely to me that because of this system of at-large council elections, Democrats dominate simply because more Austinites are liberals than are conservatives. Were the boot on the other foot, I’m pretty sure the Hyde Park and Tarrytown elites Dave refers to would be wearing different-coloured ties.

  • Cannonshop

    Doc, consider the impact of just one group that you yourself probably oppose;

    The Religious Right, particularly as it manifested in 1980 with Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority”, exercised an enormous amount of power proportional to their actual numbers or support-now, imagine a place wherein organized nannybot “Krischuns” working with flat-earthers and book-banning paganaphobes were able to sway the elections of a diverse urban area-because they’re organized, and will vote a party line.

    That’s what it’s like for Dave in Austin, only the phanatics are on the left instead of the right.

  • Dan, cumulative voting is a viable alternative. It actually lets non-geographically linked minority groups win representation. So of course, it will never fly in Austin. It would give 2 or more seats in the council it Republicans.

    And Dr. D., I find it hard to believe you don’t understand how an organized minority can dominate an election. Could it be that partisanship blinds you to reality?


  • Doug Hunter


    That is an interesting system. It should give single issue voters more power especially if their position/skin color/issue is not proportionally represented by the pool of candidates. The whole point of instituting the system was to get more racial minorities elected (a racist goal in itself, but to be expected in this dark age) What’s interesting is that minorities aren’t just about skin color, they’re also about radical political ideas. If you can get a radical libertarian, a socialist, an abortion or immigration activist on the ballot then a small devoted minority can get them elected. It’s certainly something worth trying out, maybe we’d get some more politicians without a (D) or (R) before their name.

    I’d love to see the statistics on how many people lump their votes vs. how many people split.

  • Alas! “Alos” s/b “also”.

  • If that system was introduced for the House of Representatives, there’d be a lot of Americans with tired arms. Alos, potentially, one candidate could receive more votes than there are people on the planet.

    Sounds like fun.

  • How about cumulative voting under which each voter gets as many votes as there are posts to fill; vote them all for one candidate or split them as desired.


  • How can a small group of elitists control the outcome of an election by voting in large numbers?

    The case for single-member districts is a good one, but something’s seriously off about Dave’s argument.

    Couldn’t be the partisan rhetoric, I suppose. Surely not.

  • Cannonshop

    STM, I’m on the opposite side of that-the people who live in a place, well, OUGHT to have more of a say on what goes into the laws there, than the people who’re basically just there for a few hours a day at most.

    even, or especially, when their politics does not agree with my own.

  • STM

    There’s some merit in the at-large idea for a big city council, because otherwise interest groups can monopolise issues.

    For instance: the centre of Austin, which doubtless is the life of the city, is not represented only by the people who live there, but with single-member representation (and I’m speaking from my own experience in Australia here), people living outside that area can be denied a say in what goes or doesn’t go.

    For smaller suburban councils, I’d say the single member representating one ward or district of the council is a great idea, but for a major city, it’s not.

    I can’t tell you how many times it’s bummed me off that the millions of people who come into Sydney to work or eat or be entertained 24/7 are denied a say in because a radical cyclist, two green activists with a chihuhaua, or three university students sharing a rundown terrace house say they do or don’t want something and have more say than the rest of us.

  • Clearly you don’t live in Austin. And being disenfranchised by the ruling elite can happen to anyone.


  • Scott M. Deitche

    Wow- I never thought I’d see smart growth as a leftist plot device. Nor wealthy white Republicans as an oppressed minority. LOL

    Anyway- good points on single member districts; they are a good idea irrespective of political or racial persuasion.