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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

Of wards and at-larges

Of wards and at-large seats: Ok, political science 101 returns. Today's lesson is about the different ways you can divide up a geographic area into districts for electing a legislature. I bring this up because Democrats in Clifton park are trying to get an initiative on the November ballot that would shift the town from a 5 person town board elected at-large to a 5 person town board with 4 wards and 1 at-large supervisor. Let's start with the basics:

1) How you draw the lines is philospohically important, part I: Once upon a time, people who believed in democrcacy thought that geographic regions deserved equal representation, so local election lines were often drawn to match county lines or to give different areas of a town equal representation, based on things like traditional neighborhoods or types of commerce in an area. In the 20th century, it became common belief that individuals should have equal representation, so lines are usually now drawn such that the same number of people live in each district.

2) How you draw the lines is philosophically important, part II: The question in this case, however, isn't one of equal individual representation. It is a question of the part vs. the whole. At-large districting is the practice of electing all of the representatives from one big district (i.e. the whole town votes for the whole board), such that each representative has the same constituency. Imagine if everyone in New York State got to vote for all of our Congressmen. That's at-large districting, and it was very common in the 19th century. Many states did indeed use this method for selecting their Congressmen back then - if the state had 7 members in Congress, then there were state-wide votes for 7 different races (note that you could use a "top-7" system in which there was one race and the top 7 vote getters won, but no state every used that). Ward districting, or just districting for short, is the practice of sub-dividing states or towns into distinct parcels for the purpose of elections. This is how every state now picks their Congressmen, and how almost all cities hold elections for city council. It became popular in the early 19th century in America and is very common today. Albany, for example, has a ward system for common council elections. Only the mayor is chosen by an at-large vote of the city residents.

What are the advantages of at-large districting?
There are three distinct advantages: first, you tend to produce better representatives in terms of candidate quality, since there are simply more people to choose from for each race. Second, the people who win elections tend to represent the whole, instead of just a factional part of the town. Their interests lie with their constituency, and their constiuency is the whole town, not just one neighborhood. Third, you don't have to deal with the political mess of drawing ward lines, but more on that below.

What are the advantages of ward-based districting?
Again, at least three advantages: First, localities can be better represented, particularly if they have strong preferences that are different than the rest of the legislative area. Secondly, politicians who are elected can be more in touch with their communities because they represent a smaller area and a smaller number of people. And finally, you avoid the political mess of having a party with a slim-majority across the whoe region dominating the town board or legislature, but more on that below.

3) How you draws the lines is politically very important: Most people have a sense of this from past national debates about gerrymandering congressional lines. But consider a town with the following dynamics: four distinct areas of town, all equal in population. In one area, it is 90% Republican and 10% democrat. In the other three areas, it is 53% Democrat and 47% Republican. Under a system of ward representation, we would get 3 Democrats and 1 Republican (plus a republican supervisor if that was chosen at-large). But if we did at-large voting for all the seats, we would get 4 Republicans and no Democrats! (Plus a Republican superivisor if that was chosen at large). So you can obviously see how the drawing of the lines is crucial to the outcome of the board elections. If you think about it for a bit, it can be a bit scary. And that's what's going on in Clifton Park. The Republicans have a slight edge overall in the town, so they wan't at-large seats. The Democrats probably have slim majorities in several sections of town, so they want a ward system so that they can get some representation on the board.

But wait, it gets worse! Go back to our hypothetical 4-ward town. But put the republicans in control of drawing the lines. By putting a portion of the 90% republican ward into each of the other wards, the republicans can win all the seats without resorting to at-large districting! This is why the line drawing for the congressional districts is so hotly contested. It's not simply a matter of wards vs. at-large, it also matters how the lines are drawn in the ward system!

P.S. - As I've noted before in detail, it's often the case in a democracy that institutional change of this sort is desired because of political goals of factions or parties, not because of any philosophical interest in the merits of the change.That's exactly the case here - neither party really cares about the districting system, they just both know that they can do better politically under one of the two systems, so that's what they support. Take this for example, a prominent Democrat extolling the virtues of the ward system if it came to Clifton Park:
Democrats contend the system, which would divide the region's second most populous town into four geographic wards, would give better local representation in Clifton Park's growing suburban neighborhoods.
True enough, but that's not why they support it. For this reason, I'm very hesitant to monkey with the institutional rules. Although in the case of town boards, I think a ward system is philosophically better.
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At 2:02 PM , Anonymous Curious said:

Wouldn't it be great if a map of the city with the wards demarcated were available on line?    

At 2:20 PM , Blogger Matt said:

I am guessing that you can get an online ward map - but i'll be damned if I can find one! It baffles me that one isn't available on the city government website, but i didn't see one. I put in an email to DIA, who would know as well as anyone if they exist online.    

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