Home > Thematic Areas > Democratic local governance > The State of Local Democracy in the United States: An Exploration

How would you measure the state of local democracy across the U.S.? Are local governments in some states more representative and democratic than in others? How does the United States compare to other countries?

Despite a shared commitment to representative democracy in the United States, very little evidence has been brought to bear by the research community in recent years on the question whether the current political structures, governance systems and intergovernmental arrangements ensure an optimally inclusive and representative democratic local governance system. In other words, the state of local democracy in the United States is an important yet understudied aspect of the American experiment of federalism and self-government.

In an effort to start filling the knowledge gap on the topic, an exploratory analysis of the State of Local Democracy in the United States considers four different measures of local democracy:

First, the analysis considers the size of an (average) local government’s population, as the jurisdiction’s population size reflects the “distance” between the constituent/voter and the local government jurisdiction: after all, the bigger (or more populous) each local government jurisdiction is, the smaller the voice of each individual or household. An initial assessment of the available evidence on the structure and size of local governments suggests that local government jurisdiction sizes in the United States generally strike a balance between being sufficiently large in scale to be efficient while at the same time being sufficiently small to be responsive and accountable to the people.

Second, the analysis considers the number of elected representatives within each local government that together comprise the board or council that deliberates on matters of importance and that has authoritative decision-making power. It is expected that the larger the number of elected representatives on the local government board or council, all else equal, the more informed and representative the local government’s decisions will be. The analysis reveals that a typical local government board in the United States has only five members, while the average county board has 5.7 members. This means that county decisions—affecting the lives of a hundred thousand residents, on average—can typically be made by a board majority of three individuals. The small size of county boards appears to prevent the board from meaningfully representing the diversity of opinions and interests of the county’s constituents. Furthermore, because the size of local government boards typically varies little (or does not vary at all) among local governments with different population sizes, residents in smaller jurisdictions tend to have a greater degree of democratic representation at the local level than residents in larger jurisdictions.

Third, the analysis considers the level of representation or “voice” that people have within each jurisdiction, as measured by the number of constituents per elected local representative for each local government. The smaller the number of constituents represented by each representative, the larger the voice each individual or households is likely to have in public decision-making. The degree of electoral representation in the United States appears to be quite reasonable, with each elected local representative on average representing the voices, opinions, and perspectives of residents of around 6,600 residents. Elected representation, however, is quite unevenly distributed across states: whereas some states have a high degree of electoral representation (with 1,000-3,000 constituents per elected local representative, on average), local governments in other states have much lower degree of democratic representation (exceeding 30,000 residents per elected local representative).

Finally, the analysis considers whether the election mechanism used results in a governing body that is representative of the underlying population. Some electoral mechanisms—such as at-large elections using multi-member districts—tend to result in unrepresentative election outcomes, whereas other electoral mechanisms—such as proportional representation or ranked-choice voting—tend to be more representative in nature. The analysis finds that 69 percent of popularly elected members of local governing boards are elected through at-large elections, which is arguably the least inclusive and representative election mechanism. More representative electoral mechanisms—such as ranked-choice voting and proportional representation—are used in fewer than one-half of one percent of all local governments in the United States (Sightline Institute, 2017).

The exploration of the state of local democracy in the United States provides a motivation to think differently about the nature of local governance and local democracy in the United States. In many ways, local democracy has been treated by many as a strictly local matter: in fact, local governments in many states are given considerable discretion to determine their own governance structure.

However, local governance structures are integral part of America’s approach to federalism and self-government based on the understanding that all Americans have a right to have their voice, opinions, and interests represented at the local level. This perspective suggests the need for a more pro-active role for the policy makers and the public policy community: as federalism and local self-government are core American values, state legislatures—who hold the constitutional authority to shape local democracy within their respective states—should ensure that local governments in their state uniformly use inclusive, representative and responsive local governance structures.

Based on this initial exploration, an area that requires further exploration is the degree of local electoral representation, particularly at the county level. In many states, the degree of electoral representation could be enhanced considerably simply by increasing the size of local governing board. For instance, by increasing the number of seats on county governing boards—say, from 5 board members to 9 or 15 members—would instantly and drastically increase the ability of county boards to be more representative of, and more responsive to, the diversity of the people that they are elected to serve.

Another area where further exploration is warranted in order to strengthen federalism and local democracy is the nature of local government elections. The electoral approaches most commonly used in the United States at the local level—plurality elections, using either single-member districts or multi-member districts, or some combination thereof—are not likely to yield representative elected bodies. As such, it would be worthwhile to explore the introduction of more representative electoral mechanisms—such as ranked-choice voting and proportional representation—at the local government level, possibly in combination with efforts to increase the size of governing bodies.

Read the entire report:

Jamie Boex. The State of Local Democracy in the United States: An Exploration. December 2018.