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April 29, 2008

City Council Races: Where's the Competition?

posted by Josh Goodman

David Schleicher, a Harvard lecturer, makes an interesting point about local politics:

Despite the attention given to the anticompetitive effects of gerrymandering on national and state elections, little notice is paid to the least competitive legislative elections in America: its city council elections. In cities with partisan elections, individual competitive seats are rarer than at the national level and there is almost never competition for partisan control of councils. Nonpartisan city council elections are even worse, with virtually undefeatable incumbents and no policy competition of any kind.

(Hat Tip: Election Law Blog)

Schleicher, writing in the Journal of Law and Politics, goes on to argue that laws that give an advantage to national political parties limit competition in local politics. You can download the full paper here.

Schleicher notes that cities such as Philadelphia and New York City have had hotly contested mayoral races, but far less competition for city council seats. Part of his argument is that voters have so little information about city council candidates (unlike mayoral candidates) that they end up voting based on national party affiliation, even though those affiliations often have little relevance for local government.

Analogously, the same dynamic sometimes plays out in state politics. Democrats have routinely won the governorship in Wyoming (a Republican state) and Republicans have routinely won the governorship in Massachusetts (a Democratic state). But in the low-information world of legislative politics, the same level of competition doesn't exist. Currently, Republicans hold 66 of the 90 seats in the Wyoming legislature. In Massachusetts, Democrats hold 176 out of 200.   


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