Should We Reconsider District-Only Elections?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

It’s hard to see the benefits of district elections. 

There’s little evidence that switching city elections from at-large to by-district—as California cities have been forced to do under legal threat—produces more diverse schools boards and city councils. (The real path to diversity involves a switch to partisan local election, with multi-member districts, party lists and proportional representation, but such a system—while widely in use in other parts of the world—is considered unrealistic here.)

And evidence is mounting that district elections have nasty side effects.

The Voice of San Diego recently highlighted one drawback: that they may be contributing to California’s housing shortage. 

An academic study from Princeton and City University of New York suggests there is less home production in low-income neighborhoods, since those neighborhoods have more political power. That may be good—the housing is less concentrated in certain places. But the problem is that housing in other areas provokes more opposition, so less housing is being built. 

The research also suggests that cities with district elections are approving more single-family homes, but fewer of the multi-unit buildings we need. It suggests that district elections may further empower NIMBYs—right in the middle of a housing crisis.

Stopping the rush to district elections will require a constitutional amendment. And the time is right to pursue it, since district elections haven’t delivered. Localities should have the right and responsibility to choose the most democratic election system they can. 

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