The form of municipal elections varies from city to city, with three common variations: some cities elect their local representatives by at-large elections, some by district and some have both, called a mixed system.
The election system of a given city is determined by the nature of the council members' constituency and by the presence or absence of party labels on the ballot (see Partisan vs. Non-partisan Elections). With regard to the first feature, there are two types of constituencies for city council members -- at-large and district.
All at-large members are elected to serve the same constituency, which is the population of the city as a whole. At-large election proponents favor having council members elected by the entire city because:
However, at-large elections can weaken the representation of particular groups, especially if the group does not have a citywide base of operations or is an ethnic or racial group concentrated in a specific ward.
Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of all municipalities use at-large elections in some way. At-large elections tend to be more popular in small cities and more affluent areas.
These elections select a single council member from a corresponding geographical section of the city, called a district or ward. District election proponents favor having council members elected to represent individual wards because:
However, councils elected by district elections may experience more infighting and be less likely to prioritize the good of the city over the good of their district.
Only 14 percent of all municipalities use district elections. Cities with populations of 200,000 or more are more likely to use district elections.
Twenty-one percent of municipalities combine these two methods by electing some council members at large and some from districts. An individual councilmember will either occupy a district or an at-large seat on the council. Mixed systems are most likely to be found in parts of the South and Central jurisdictions.
(200,000 And Up)
*Study based on a mailed questionnaire completed by a random sample of 664 council members in cities with populations of 25,000 and higher (Svara).
Morgan, David and Robert England. Managing Urban America, 5th Edition. New York, NY: Seven Bridges Press, LLC, 1999.
Moulder, Evelina. "Municipal Form of Government: Trends in Structure, Responsibility, and Composition." In The Municipal Year Book, 2008. Washington, DC: International City/County Management Association, 2008.
Renner, Tari and Victor S. DeSantis. "Municipal Form of Government: Issues and Trends." In The Municipal Year Book, 1998. Washington, DC: International City/County Management Association, 1998.
Svara, James H. Two Decades of Continuity and Change in American City Councils. Washington, DC: National League of Cities, 2003.