Last week, I discussed how socioeconomic characteristics can limit the pool of people who run for office. Holding office is biased towards people with disposable income and time they can dedicate to public service when many offices are voluntary or offer little remuneration. The composition of our elective bodies warps policymaking in favor of the wealthy. This week I focus on how the way we elect officeholders in legislative positions can also limit who gets elected and how the issue preferences of some communities get a lower placement in the agenda. Two systems that are dominant in American elections, single-member districts and at-large elections, are detrimental to the representation of interests of underrepresented groups, particularly people of color.
The way in which officeholders are elected affect the descriptive and substantive representation of people. By descriptive representation I refer to the election of people from underrepresented communities. For example, the election of people of color such as African-Americans or Latinos, or the election of women in a country where the majority of elected officials are white males. Substantive representation refers to how elected officials prioritize or promote the interests and policy preferences of the communities they represent.
In the U.S. Congress, states legislatures, and many cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, members represent geographically-delimited constituencies or districts. In the last few decades, the number of people of color and their proportion overall among elected officials has increased. A lot of these gains can be attributed to the single-member district system, but these gains come with a price.
In terms of descriptive representation, single-member districts have contributed to more Latinos and African Americans being elected to office. The creation of so-called minority-majority districts, where the majority of the population are people of color, has allowed many of these communities to elect representatives that reflect the characteristics of people living in those communities. In 1971, the 92nd Congress, the first cohort of the Congressional Black Caucus in the House of Representatives had 12 African American members. Twenty years later, in 1991, the number of African American members more than doubled to 27, eventually increasing to its current total of 44. Similarly, the number of Latinos in the House increased from 5 in 1971, to 11 in 1991, to 32 today. As I noted a few weeks ago, a majority of Latino House members represent districts where the majority of the population is also Latino.
Both groups are still underrepresented based on their population totals, but the presence of members of these communities has vastly improved. Yet, more descriptive representation has not improved the substantive representation of the issues people of color care about. In the 1990s (an era that fostered a surge in the study of representation of racial and ethnic minorities) political scientist David Lublin called this The Paradox of Representation. In essence, the increase in minority-majority districts, in combination with gerrymandering that “packed” the districts with overwhelming majorities of people of color, reduced the number of elected officials who were responsive to their interests and preferences.
However, the most common form of representation in American cities and towns is the at-large system. All candidates run in a single city wide district and those who receive most votes are elected until all seats are filled. This system tends to affect communities of color who concentrate in particular neighborhoods. In many places people of color live in segregated neighborhoods, which is the norm in most American cities. Candidates from these communities rarely gain support outside their neighborhoods, seriously diminishing their chances of being elected.
Cities are where many of the policies that affect everyday life are enacted. Without proper representation, communities of color have to navigate a system where policies are hostile to their interests. In combination with the major biases toward the wealthy and educated, the rules that determine elections create a system in which people of color get token representation, little substantive power, or neither. In order to have a truly democratic country where people of all stripes can serve the public, it is necessary to rethink and remake the rules of political engagement. This includes the way we finance elections, which I will discuss next week.