Opinion » Viewpoint

The Case for Single-Member Council Districts

Voters should act to remold the City Council along the same lines as the County Commission.



Quick quiz for Memphians, as elections approach: Who's your city councilman?

It's a trick question. You have four city councilpersons representing you: one in your local single-member district, and three more from an overlapping large, multimember "Super District" covering half the city.

Overall there are seven single-member districts covering all of Memphis, with two Super Districts overlaid on top, each electing three councilpersons.

Some of you may know that, but I bet many of you didn't or forgot. And even fewer know exactly how the Super District candidates run. Do they all run against each other? Are there "sub districts" within the Super District?

Actually, neither. Candidates must choose to run for one of three "numbered positions" within each Super District, and then compete only with those candidates who have chosen to run for that numbered position.

Confusing? Yes, and needlessly so. This patchwork quilt could be made simpler and better by switching to 13 single-member districts, as some activists and city council members have urged, and as the county commission did a few years ago.

Under this proposal, each voter would have one city councilman in a small, neighborhood-based district.

In addition to being less confusing, there are other advantages. Each single-member district would have about 50,000 people, compared to the 326,000 people in each Super District. This would make it easier for a voter to get his representative's attention and to affect the outcome of the election. It would also make it easier for an official to communicate with constituents.

Additionally, it would reduce the unfair advantage that incumbents have in elections, making elections more competitive. A dedicated candidate can knock on the doors of likely voters in a district that small and doesn't need a huge campaign war chest to send advertising to hundreds of thousands of people. A less well-funded, less well-known challenger can have a fighting chance. This increased competition would be good for everybody and might even increase turnout.

The resulting redistricting plan would be more representative of the popular will. Any time you carve a city up into districts, there is an imperfect correlation between 1) the city-wide percentage of Republicans versus Democrats, liberals versus conservatives, blacks versus whites, etc., and 2) the number of districts with a majority of Republican/liberal/black voters.

When you have smaller districts and more fine-tuned districting, that correspondence improves. That's why federal courts in civil-rights suits have for decades favored single-member districts and disapproved of multi-member districts, because of their inherent tendency to dilute the minority vote.

Advocates of the current system say that single-member district representatives tend to have a parochial focus on the narrow concerns of their small area, and that you need the counterbalance of Super-District representatives to take the larger, city-wide view.

This is a valid point, but I'm unsure how much it works in practice. I served on a county commission with one single-member district and four multi-member districts. I did not see this feared dynamic of geographic parochialism at work.

Also, the new county commission has now converted from a mixed single- and multi-member district approach to 13 single-member districts. (Full disclosure: They did this at my urging.) I have seen no rise in parochialism.

Anyway, Memphis doesn't use city-wide, at-large districts; we have one Super District for (whiter, richer) eastern Memphis, and one for (blacker, poorer) western Memphis. So, rather than a Memphis-wide view, those representatives are encouraged to take an East Memphis-versus western-Memphis view.

Another argument for the current system is that voters get to vote for four councilpersons rather than one. Converting to single-member districts would, in effect, be taking away three of your votes.

This, too, is a valid concern. But with the state of voter confusion about the city council system and the 326,000-person size of our Super Districts, I wonder just how empowering those three extra votes are. Does their theoretical value outweigh the new proposal's advantages in curbing voter confusion, increasing electoral competitiveness, facilitating constituent-representative communication, and making the overall redistricting plan more representative?

On balance, I lean toward neighborhood-based representation. It's a change that the city council could make with a charter amendment to be presented to the voters in a future election. As you prepare for next month's city council elections, ask your city council candidates what they think, and think about it yourself as you work your way through that ballot. Steven Mulroy is Associate Dean at the University of Memphis' law school.

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