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America's cities need multi-party democracy
In Los Angeles and beyond, one party government means parochialism and stasis
Stan Oklobdzija is a Visiting Assistant Professor at UC Riverside's School of Public Policy. He was formerly Research Director at California YIMBY, a group seeking to reform housing policy in that state.
In the city of Los Angeles, there are more than four registered Democrats for every Republican. If you combine that number with “No Party Preference” voters who tend to skew left, that figure rises to more than six to one.
Los Angeles also has 18 officials elected directly by voters--15 City Council members plus a Mayor, Controller and City Attorney. Of these, just one isn’t registered as a Democrat, (John Lee, a City Council member who represents the San Fernando Valley switched his partisan affiliation to “No Party Preference” from Republican shortly before running in 2020.)
By all accounts, Los Angeles should be moving full swing through a progressive Democratic agenda. After all, LA’s Congressional delegation are some of the most liberal members of the U.S. House. Without Republican opposition, Angelenos should be enjoying a miniature version of Sweden by the Pacific with comprehensive social services and a robust safety net.
In practice, Los Angeles has not just the largest unsheltered homeless population in America, but one of the largest homeless populations on planet Earth, putting it in dubious company with cities like Manila, Mumbai and Moscow. It’s also America’s most cost-burdened metro area, with a full 44 percent of all households paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing. And in stark contrast to both Copenhagen and Stockholm, Los Angeles was named America’s worst bike city in 2018.
Los Angeles’ problem, like most American cities, isn’t who is getting elected, but how they’re getting elected and the manner in which they serve once on the council. The astoundingly large number of constituents each of LA’s 15 councilmembers represents, coupled with the marriage of each councilmember to a distinct geographic entity ensures that a politician’s path to victory comes through appeasing a minimum winning coalition of parochial interest groups rather than concerning themselves with the city’s broader welfare. By expanding the council and creating multi-member districts, Los Angeles could usher in a raft of new political parties whose electoral interests would have them form broad coalitions across districts, ideologies and ethnicities in order to pass the transformative policies the city so desperately needs.
One Party Democracy Is No Democracy
Political parties that organize conflicts and bundle issues are integral to the proper functioning of Democratic politics. When selecting a candidate for Congress, a voter can instantaneously know a candidate’s position on abortion, gun control or climate change just by knowing which party that candidate belongs to. Just knowing the stance of the Democratic and Republican Parties on an issue allows someone to align their issue preference to their vote with almost perfect accuracy without even ever opening up a candidate’s website. It’s no wonder then why political scientists have found that party ID is both the most salient and useful cue for guiding vote choice.
Remove political parties from the equation and voters are left lost in the wilderness. Such was the situation in 1950 when the American Political Science Association issued a report bemoaning the lack of difference between the Republicans and Democrats. “Unless the parties identify themselves with programs, the public is unable to make an intelligent choice between them,” the report warned.
Today in Los Angeles and most other major cities, voters are in a similar situation because party labels are often absent and even when present the Democrat vs Republican dichotomy is totally uninformative about the main issues in municipal politics. A voter looking at their ballot for the first time sees just a candidate’s name and a few words about their occupation. In order for our democracy to function, we rely on voters to become encyclopedias about each candidate seeking to represent them. In a world where work, family and general life commitments make severe demands on a person’s time, this reliance is not just unrealistic, but actively injurious to the legitimacy of our government. City council members, in our current system, depend far less on appealing to voters to earn their place in office, than they do appealing to narrow interest groups and party kingmakers in what elections scholars call “the invisible primary.” Though the top-two primary system passed statewide in 2010 and LA’s recent move away from off-cycle elections helped make elections more competitive, just two incumbents, (David Ryu and Nick Pacheco), have been removed from the council over the last 20 years.
Electoral accountability could improve dramatically with the inclusion of candidate slates—essentially miniature parties that unite candidates with similar ideologies and policy goals under a common banner. The inclusion of slates—especially on ballots—would provide both a useful cue to voters and help distinguish opposition figures from incumbents. However, slates won’t emerge as a feature in our municipal elections until some other deficiencies in our elections are rectified first.
Your Own Personal Irvine
While non-partisan elections are a feature of most American city governments, Los Angeles stands out for the sheer number of constituents each member of the city council represents. As it currently stands, each LA City Councilmember represents between about 245,000 and 262,000 people depending on the district. By far, each LA City Council member, on average, represents more people than in any other city in the United States.
What do such large districts mean for representation? For starters, large districts mean more expensive political campaigns, something exacerbated by the high cost of television advertising in the LA market. Second, such large constituencies mean no single community is represented within the boundaries of a given district--making it more difficult for local leaders to build the support necessary in order to win office. Related to this is the fact that with over 250,000 constituents, it’s simply impossible for one elected official to attend to the desires of such a numerous and diverse set of people--leaving many with urgent needs out in the cold.
Just reducing the number of constituents by adding more members of the LA City Council is a worthy goal in and of itself. After all, each represents about as many people as live in the city of Irvine. But rather than just carving up new districts to create new seats, there’s a better way forward that also takes care of the previously mentioned problems as well.
Ending Council Privilege: E Unibus Pluram
The problem with single-member districts is best illustrated by a story about busses.
Right now, mass transit connecting the job centers of North Hollywood, Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena is just a hodge-podge of local bus routes. Seeing the deficiencies in 2018, planners at Metro envisioned an 18-mile bus rapid transit corridor extending along major boulevards through that city and linking Metro’s Red Line subway with its Gold Line light rail. Giving busses their own dedicated lane and signal priority to keep them out of traffic would cut down on trip times and also help busses arrive at stops on time, making them a more reliable form of transportation. Plus, the busses would be electric zero-emissions vehicles, providing a far cleaner option to get around town than a passenger vehicle.
Unfortunately, Metro’s plan ran head-long into one of the biggest deficiencies of LA’s current political structure--council privilege. Though it goes by different names, most American cities where city council members represent distinct geographic districts give absolute deference to those representatives for matters occurring in their jurisdiction. A relic of the machine-politics era, giving council members a virtual fiefdom turns what should be routine matters into prolonged battle aimed at extracting the maximum number of concessions. The council privilege system subjects essential functions like housing production to the whim of elected officials and local interest groups and also invites corruption as LA recently saw with former 14th District Councilman Jose Huizar, (Disclosure: I interned at Huizar’s office for a semester in 2009 while working towards my Master of Public Policy degree at USC.)
The proposed North Hollywood to Pasadena Transit Corridor runs through a sliver of Eagle Rock, which is governed by Huizar’s successor, Kevin de Leon. In May, de Leon asked Metro to ditch plans to remove a car lane to accommodate the bus rapid transit project along the section of Colorado Boulevard that falls within his district. He also called for more community meetings to scope the project, which was supposed to get final approval that month. As a result, the project will undergo significant delays and cost increases while thousands who could’ve taken advantage of the new transit option are forced to wait even longer.
That one council member can effectively halt a project linking four communities shows the obvious flaw in council privilege. Angelenos don’t exist solely within the confines of their district. We work in one place, live in another and enjoy activities throughout the region. We experience the region as a whole, not as a set of parochial boundaries that have little meaning to anyone besides the government officials they empower. We seek city and region wide solutions, not just myopic ones focused on just our neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, without meaningful partisan competition to structure ideological conflict about the future of the city, parochialism is baked into our political system of single-member districts. In this system, one person represents one piece of ground and is responsible only to voters who live in that area. As such, if that elected official wants to win reelection, they have every incentive to cater to those in their district specifically--even if that means harming voters who live elsewhere. De Leon needs the support of highly-engaged, wealthy homeowner activists in Eagle Rock if he wants to stay on the city council—he doesn’t need the vote of a lowly commuter who lives in North Hollywood and has to battle traffic for 90 minutes to get to her job in Pasadena.
On a more macro-level, single-member districts have a second flaw. As French sociologist Maurice Duverger discovered in the 1950s, political systems where candidates compete to represent a single district and win with a plurality of the vote favor two party systems. The logic behind this trend is pretty straight-forward; if you’re a larger party and a smaller party is siphoning away your voters, it’s in your strategic interest to just co-opt their positions into your own platform.
Political scientist Lee Drutman of the New America Foundation has been pushing the House of Representatives to turn away from single-member districts for precisely this reason. A two party system elevates what would normally be minor disputes between smaller parties into existentially threatening polarization given the winner-takes-all stakes of controlling the federal government. In a system that’s predicated on compromise, two intransigent parties locked in a life-or-death battle gives way to the gridlock from which dictators have emerged in democracies similar to ours.
Here in LA, it’s even worse. Given the nationalization of both political parties, the LA County Republican Party doesn’t offer a reasonable counterpoint to Democratic Party hegemony. Rather than staking a position contrary to incumbent Democrats on housing, law enforcement, education or any plethora of issues, they’ve instead retreated to the same grievance politics and ethno-nationalism that have defined the national party. In most LA City Council races during the 2020 election, the GOP didn’t even bother fielding a serious candidate. Such conditions give way to the one party stagnation described above.
Multi-Member Districts and Proportional Representation: A Way to Help LA Fix Itself
While it’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and declare Los Angeles a lost cause, the problems that plague the city aren’t caused by any want of smart, dedicated and hard-working Angelenos committed to making our city better. Rather, Los Angeles is stuck in its current failure spiral because our political institutions are designed to privilege incumbents and elevate local interest groups rather than advance theories of the common good. While other cities face brain-drains, job flight and chronic malaise, Los Angeles remains a beacon for both America’s and the world’s brightest, most creative and most industrious people. Adapting our politics to harness this energy would create a virtuous circle in which one improvement in our lives will soon beget another.
Also fortunate for us is the fact that the solution has not already been invented, but has proven itself successful in democracies around the world. What seem like slight tweaks in the minutiae of politics can actually have great effects by aligning the incentives of both politicians and parties with that of the public good. These changes dilute the power of interest groups by super-charging democratic rule--meaning that a committed minority can no longer prosper at the expense of a diffuse and disengaged majority.
The first change is a move to multi-member districts. In contrast to our current system, each district under this regime would have more than one representative. The precise number varies, but scholars have generally found that three, five and seven members per district is usually ideal, (because odd numbers prevent ties.) As a general rule, the more seats per district, the more smaller parties can be represented.
Let’s take our current 15-district set up as an example, (though there’s no reason why LA couldn’t be equally or better represented with at least twice that number.) With five members per district, LA’s City Council would expand to 75 members. At this number, each new member would theoretically represent about 52,000 constituents, (one-fifth of each 259,000 person district.) That’d put LA in line with the national average of constituents per representative.
Of course, this raises the question of how these five members would be elected, which brings up the second reform, proportional representation. There are numerous versions of proportional representation, but the basic idea is that seats are allocated based on the proportion of votes parties or candidates received. Prior to California’s top-two election reform, the candidate winning the most votes in the general election was given the seat, even if a majority of voters voted against them. Our recent recall election highlights the absurdity of this system. It was possible that someone could be elected Governor of California with just a tiny fraction of the vote, even if a majority of voters opposed them.
Ideally, Los Angeles would adopt a version of proportional representation called Single Transferable Vote, essentially a multi-person version of the instant-runoff system now used in Maine, San Francisco, and New York City. Many successful democracies, including Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, currently use this system for both federal and local elections. Cambridge, Mass., Eastpoine, Mich. and Palm Desert, Calif. also use this system to elect their city councils to at-large districts.
With five seats per district, older Black homeowners, White renter Socialists, young Latino police reform activists and Asians concerned about housing can all find their local voice on the council, for instance. Under our current regime, one size fits all and local interests fight over the boundaries of their districts to ensure they get someone who represents them. Almost by definition, gerrymandering disappears as a worry when there’s more than one representative per district.
More importantly, proportional representation elections for multi-member districts encourage the formation of multiple parties. These may start as slates, where candidates across districts band together under a common banner in order to help voters pick them out of a crowded ballot. Given the number of candidates who’d run under this system, it makes sense that YIMBY-aligned candidates might form a slate while change-averse homeowners form another and candidates seeking a reduction in the LAPD’s budget form a third. New parties would be focused on citywide issues, rather defined by national brands but in practice hyper-attentive to parochial constituent concerns. .
This multi-party system would extend beyond elections. Without one coordinating body in a crowded city council, these slates would extend into city government by helping council members trade votes on some legislation and strategize opposition. Moreover, because the LA City Council would lack a hegemon like the Democratic Party, it’d force these minor slates to form coalitions with other slates by forging compromise on common goals. Finally, if a slate didn’t deliver on their promises from a previous election, voters have a clear and easy cue for whom to vote against the next time Election Day rolls around.
A Future Where There’s Something For Everyone
I’ve come to favor these reforms both as an academic who studies elections and interest groups and as a pro-housing activist. Like with America as a whole, LA’s problems don’t stem from a lack of resources or a lack of talent, something the cities of the developing world grapple with. Instead, Los Angeles is akin to taking a Fugaku supercomputer and loading it with Windows Me. It doesn’t matter that LA is America’s cultural engine and has a GDP larger than that of the Netherlands, if it runs with outdated and inefficient political institutions, it will sputter until it either collapses or is overtaken by some rival city.
Neither are these problems specific to Los Angeles. Cities across the United States have their own stories of sclerosis, corruption and growing dysfunction that makes life in them grow more expensive and more inhospitable with each passing year. Though activists are winning major battles on issues like housing and police reform, American cities are still beset by a fundamental inability to improve aspects of life taken for granted in almost all other parts of the developed world. The difference is not that other countries are smarter or that voters elsewhere are just more noble, but that American cities run as outdated relics of the political machine era--a time when graft was commonplace and the point of gaining elected office was to reward the interest groups that put you there.
If our cities are to make the necessary adaptations to both acclimate to climate change and forestall its most serious consequences, then we need city government for the 21st century. Thankfully for us, our city government for the 21st century can look a lot like the 20th century governments that many of our developed world peers already possess. A more egalitarian and more pluralistic government gives more people a seat at the table and creates the conditions where compromise and coalition can become the order of the day at City Hall.