UNCA political science professor Bill Sabo sees definite advantages to district election systems in cities with populations over 100,000. But with Asheville well below that threshold, it’s less clear what making such a switch here might mean.
In bigger cities, Sabo reports, district systems tend to boost voter turnout, elect representatives with more diverse views and emphasize neighborhood concerns. In North Carolina, eight of the state's nine cities with populations over 100,000 use election systems that include some form of district representation (see “How It’s Done in N.C.”). Both Concord and Greenville, with populations oughly comparable to Asheville’s, also use districts.
But with Asheville's population at about 83,000, Sabo worries that the potential advantages to such a change might not apply. And since the General Assembly clamped down on annexations in 2012, notes Sabo, Asheville's population is unlikely to cross the 100,000 mark for at least the next decade.
Sabo began researching the potential advantages and pitfalls of the two systems two decades ago. Here’s his take on what such a switch might mean.
Mountain Xpress: What are some potential benefits of switching to district elections?
Bill Sabo: The argument for district elections is that it gives a whole lot more attention to smaller, local areas. … Turnout tends to be higher, because candidates are more closely tied to a specific subset of voters.
There's some evidence that city spending in [cities with] district elections is focused more on basic services and neighborhoods, because candidates have to pay attention to their constituents, who are often concerned about things like sidewalks and road paving.
What kinds of spending do you tend to see under at-large systems?
Things like funding Bele Chere, tax breaks for businesses. The logic of district elections would be that we have to get back to basics. It's going to be harder for members of City Council to justify channeling funds to certain organizations for arts performances when you have other things that a certain geographic constituency is concerned about.
Is there a danger in a district election system, where officials represent only their own area, that they won’t consider the well-being of the city as a whole?
You're going to end up much more like Congress. It won't be as bad, because it's much, much smaller. … But the end result would be that Council would be forced much more to compromise, make agreements, logroll, because each representative has a smaller, more clearly defined constituency to deal with. ...
As Asheville grows, there's increasing competition over what really is "the city's interest." Development or the preservation of neighborhoods? Tax breaks to business or improving infrastructure?
How does campaign spending tend to differ under the two systems?
District elections should reduce the cost for candidates. … If someone’s running in a district, it makes little sense to advertise on television, radio or even in the newspaper. The most effective campaigning is simple, personal appeals to individuals.
What about the partisan implications of a change? Do you think it would benefit Republicans?
Everything would depend on how the lines were drawn. ... You could gerrymander it to guarantee, of course, Republicans. … Advantages of district elections can only be achieved if the districts are conscientiously drawn to make sure that neighborhoods with some common interests are combined.
Given Asheville’s population now, what do you think about the push to make that switch now?
This issue was commonly talked about 10, 20 years ago. It's probably something Asheville needs to keep in mind.
I have no idea what Moffitt's motivation is. … But when you say, "OK, we're going to put restrictions on annexations, we're going to put restrictions on control of the airport, we're going to put restrictions on your ability to control your water system, we're going to threaten to force the merger of the city and county" — all those types of things, — it's just one in a sequence in which the state is going to insist that things be done in a certain way.
This kind of thing is consistent with a desire to control the city through the state government.
What would be the disadvantages of instituting a district system in a city the size of Asheville?
The [risk] would be that you change things, only to find out that ... there is no increase in voter turnout; there is no [increased] attention to neighborhoods. Which means you did a lot of stuff for no particular reason. … If people are running unopposed and winning easily, then you may as well have at-large elections.
The logic of elections and representation suggests that there's a clear advantage to district elections. But I'm not convinced that the logic of good government and increased representation is the motivation behind this bill.
Other stories in this week's cover package exploring the issue of changing Asheville to district elections:
Democracy by decree: Moffitt's plan — an unusual move to change a local election system by state fiat — has attracted plenty of backlash from Asheville's local officials. A look at the arguments, and if Asheville's current election system is fair.
Done deal: Lessons from the 2012 district elections: As Moffitt contemplates a move to switch Asheville to predominantly district elections, similar changes he pushed for the Buncombe County commissioners continue to have far-reaching effects.