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Civics 101: The difference between 'at large' and 'by district' at the local election level

J. H. Osborne • Mar 18, 2019 at 5:45 PM

Who represents you in local government? For residents of the cities in Sullivan County, the answer is the boards of mayor and aldermen (BMAs, in Kingsport and Bluff City) or city council (in Bristol, Tennessee). And elections for some seats on each of those governing bodies are coming up in May. All aldermen seats in Kingsport and Bluff City are “at large,” one of the two types of local representation used in municipal elections.

Two types of local representation 

The election system of a given city is determined by the nature of the council members' constituency and by the presence or absence of party labels on the ballot (see Partisan vs. Non-partisan Elections). With regard to the first feature, there are two types of constituencies for city council members -- at-large and district. Last week’s Civics 101 covered “at-large” representation.

District

These elections select a single council member from a corresponding geographical section of the city, called a district or ward. District election proponents favor having council members elected to represent individual wards because:

• District elections give all legitimate groups, especially those with a geographic base, a better chance of being represented on the city council, especially minority groups. Several court decisions have forced jurisdictions to switch from at-large elections to district elections, and in most cases the reason was to allow more representation by specific ethnic and racial groups (see: Springfield, IL, 1987 and Dallas, TX,1990; see also amendments by the U.S. Congress to the Voting Rights Act, 1982).

• District members are more sensitive to the small but important problems of their constituents, like waste disposal.

• District elections may improve citizen participation because councilmen who represent a specific district may be more responsive to their constituency.

• However, councils elected by district elections may experience more infighting and be less likely to prioritize the good of the city over the good of their district.

• Only 14 percent of all municipalities use district elections. Cities with populations of 200,000 or more are more likely to use district elections.

Mixed-System

Twenty-one percent of municipalities combine the two methods — at-large and district — by electing a mix of members. Bristol Tennessee is one such city. Some of its BMA members are at large and some are from districts. An individual member will either occupy a district or an at-large seat on the council.

• Mixed systems are most likely to be found in parts of the South and Central jurisdictions.

Source: The National League of Cities.

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