Viewpoint: At-Large Council Seats Do Not Equal Minority Representation

By: George Hawthorne, C.E.O., Diversity Program Advisors, Inc.
The two types of City Council representation in Pensacola are at-large councilpersons, where the majority at the city level elects the representatives on the city council, and district councilpersons, where representatives are chosen in districts. I have been disturbed by recent arguments from the opponents of eliminating the at-large council positions based upon a flawed or manipulative claim that such elimination reduces minority representation. This is simply false and is not consistent with case law and scientific research and empirical data.

The protection of minority rights in Pensacola’s political representation is best achieved and articulated through a combination of majority sensitivity and minority inclusion. Pensacola’s minority groups must enjoy full access to participate in the political sphere, public life and the relevant aspects of decision-making. Such guarantees are also essential components of good governance, conflict management and multi-ethnic accommodation in Pensacola where disputes over racial difference have turned, or have the capacity to turn, into social conflict and serve to perpetuate the region’s economic and civic disparities.

Pensacola must pay particular attention to how its representative bodies are elected and who shares in executive and legislative power. The inclusion of minorities in representative bodies is a necessary condition of conflict prevention and longer-term conflict management. Inclusion implies that members of minority groups can run for office, have a fair shake at winning office, and then have a voice in locally elected government structures. There is not a single case of democratic conflict avoidance in which the minority community is excluded from legislative representation.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 was meant to protect the right to vote for racial minorities especially in the South. White majorities in cities of the South reacted strategically to this federal legislation by changing the electoral rules of their cities in order to minimize minority representation. They only partially succeeded. Had they not been kept in check by judicial intervention, they would have engaged in even more openly strategic manipulation of rules. There are case law findings and empirical evidence of such strategic manipulation both around the time of introduction of the VRA and in the after-VRA period.

My evidence to support my position that, “the elimination of Pensacola’s at-large council positions in fact “increases minority representation,” is best supported by the historical evidence, case law and scientific data as revealed in the 2007 Harvard University paper published by Francesco Trebbi, Philippe Aghion and Alberto Alesina entitled, “Electoral rules and Minority Representation in U.S. cities.”

In this paper it shows (in theory and then empirically) that white majorities expecting an increase in black votes after the Voting Right Act adopted at-large electoral rules when the black minority in the city was relatively small in order to win all seats. However, if the minority share was larger (closer to a fifty-fifty split), the possibility of losing the whole city induced the white majority to confine black votes in minority-packed districts and single-member district: electoral rules serve this purpose.

This paper studies the choice of electoral rules, in particular the question of minority representation. Majorities tend to disenfranchise minorities through strategic manipulation of electoral rules. With the aim of explaining changes in electoral rules adopted by US cities, particularly in the South, it shows why majorities tend to adopt “winner-take-all” city-wide rules (at-large elections) in response to an increase in the size of the minority when the minority they are facing is relatively small. In this case, for the majority it is more effective to leverage on its sheer size instead of risking conceding representation to voters from minority-elected districts. However, as the minority becomes larger (closer to a fifty-fifty split), the possibility of losing the whole city induces the majority to prefer minority votes to be confined in minority-packed districts. Single-member district rules serve this purpose. This paper shows empirical results consistent with these implications of the model in a novel data set covering US cities and towns from 1930 to 2000.

Based solely on these facts it is clear that the “interests” of minority voters are better served by supporting the efforts under this charter amendment to eliminate the at-large seats. This is one time that the interests of minority and the majority of Pensacola’s citizens are clearly aligned and African-Americans should not be “utilized by” and “drawn into” supporting a small group of people that are interested in preserving the ability to influence and “buy” the at-large council people on the Council. Let the voters of Pensacola decide this issue, and to quote Councilman Larry Johnson, “The ultimate public input is at the ballot box.”

Diversity Program Advisors is a Pensacola-based firm offering a comprehensive range of professional services specializing in the development, management and implementation diversity inclusion of programs, projects and issues affecting our public/private sector clients.

Supporting Documentation: Electoral rules and Minority Representation in US cities.