A local voting controversy is brewing in my Midwestern hometown. Although our city council is elected in wards, as is true across the country, the 7 members of the school board are all elected at-large. One of the inevitable results of such at-large voting is that the poorer sections of town are under-represented or unrepresented. A group of local activists, Save Our Schools, is trying to put a different proposal before the voters: electing the school board by districts, insuring that every ward is directly represented.
These are two competing versions of democratic voting. Our Constitution enshrines both into the elections for Congress. Members of the House of Representatives are elected in districts within states, while Senators have been elected at-large in the states since the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.
The argument for replacing at-large with district-by-district voting for our local school board is strong. It takes much greater resources to run an at-large campaign in our whole school district of 27,000 people, than in one ward of about 4,000. At-large elections thus typically result in the election of candidates from the wealthier sections of a city. Where there are significant minority populations, at-large elections make it harder for minority candidates to win. For this reason, many southern municipalities switched to at-large voting in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as a way of maintaining white control in places with large black populations.
The bias in at-large voting has been demonstrated here in Illinois. In 1987, Springfield changed its city council from at-large to districts due to a voting rights lawsuit: the first African-American councillor since 1911 was then elected. When Danville eliminated their at-large seats in the same year, their 120-year history of electing only white men was ended. Since then 5 African-Americans, a Latino, a Native American, and 8 women have been elected. There have been only two minority members of the Jacksonville school board over the past 20 years.
The current school board has no members from the eastern and poorer half of the city. Recently the school board voted to close an elementary school in the east, without any voting members who live in that neighborhood. The unrepresentativeness of the board may contribute to the lack of interest in its work. Under 20% of registered voters participate in school board elections. Recently the board proposed a county-wide sales tax to fund the schools, replacing state and federal funds which have been cut. The measure was soundly defeated.
Our local voting controversy is about how to best represent our citizens. Across the US much more serious voting controversies have erupted this election season, because there are some attempts to make it more difficult for some voters to participate.
In Florida a majority of voters vote early. Yet the Republican state government reduced the number of days of early voting from 14 to 8 after Obama succeeded in turning out huge numbers of early black voters in 2008. In particular the Sunday before Election Tuesday was eliminated, after 2008's “Souls to the Polls” campaign brought African Americans directly from church to the polls. Similar reductions in early voting were implemented in Ohio by a Republican state government. A different means of voter suppression was attempted by Republicans in Maine, who passed a law in 2011 ending the practice of allowing registration on Election Day. Voters in Maine then repealed this law.
These are genuine efforts to make it more difficult for potential Democratic voters to vote. Here in Jacksonville the issue is how best to represent all voters equally. A thorough discussion of the merits of ward-based voting for the school board, and then a citywide vote on the issue would be the most democratic way to decide what form of democracy was best. The school board could decide to put this question on the ballot. But when it was brought up to them, they declined to take it seriously. The other means to bring the issue up is to get 5% of local voters to sign a petition to get the proposition on the next ballot.
A school board which represented the whole city would put this question on its own agenda for open discussion. It might mean that some current board members would eventually lose their seats, but the board as whole would be more representative of every neighborhood, and thus more able to rally voters to offer more financial support.
There is not just one way to create democracy. Even when everybody gets to vote, certain types of voting systems can make it more difficult for poor or minority populations to be involved, to have a voice in governance. We should seek not merely democracy, but the best possible democracy.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 1, 2012