Austin debates single-member districts (again)

The Austin Chronicle has a story (“The Single-Member Situation“) on the latest edition of Austin’s debate over single-member districts.

possible map of Austin single member districtsAustin is a good example for illustrating how elections can be conducted. For almost 60 years Austin has elected its seven member of the city council through a system in which candidates run “at large” on specific “places” on the ballot. “At large” means that all council member are elected by voter from all over the city.

All the “places” on the ballot or seats on the city council are equal in that the person who wins the place 1 race and takes seat 1 on the council does not have any more or less power than other members. All of the places on the ballot are (somewhat ironically) separate-but equal.

The places create separate races. Instead of running in open field with the top seven candidates winning seats, the at-large by place system creates seven separate contests. When someone wanting to be on the Austin city council officially files the paperwork to get on the ballot they specify a specific place on the ballot.

The Austin case is especially interesting because they tried to build representation of racial minorities into their system by designation certain seats as an “African-American seat” or “Hispanic seat.” A “gentleman’s agreement”  reserved certain places on the ballot for candidates of certain races. This did create a degree of diversity on the Austin city council. However, there are a couple of problems with the arrangement. One problem is that while a seat on the council might be reserved for a member of a certain race, voters from all races vote for that seat. So, the candidate who represents Hispanic Austinites is chosen by the voters dominated by the Anglo majority. This also contributes to some interesting debates about what it means to be “Hispanic.”

So, the issue of single-member districts (SMDs) are back on the agenda in Austin. Opponents will say that carving the city up into districts will divide the city. The problem with this argument is that the city is already divided. Different areas have different needs and the racial differences included in the gentleman’s agreement are only one way of looking at the differences in Ausitinites. The city is already divided and avoiding electoral districts only ignores real differences in the needs of different areas. I remember how hard it was to find a bank or grocery store east of I-35.

The Austin arrangement begs the question of how to best represent the citizens of a city. Austin seems overdue for a new system.


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