In the 2018 midterm elections, Dan Donovan, the Republican congressman from Staten Island, lost his seat to his Democratic opponent, Max Rose. With his defeat, the New York Times recently noted, there won’t be a single Republican lawmaker in the nation’s capital speaking for anyone in New York City, meaning that the more than half a million registered Republicans who live in the five boroughs are all but invisible in Congress. Likewise, the Times points out that hundreds of thousands of Arkansas Democrats can’t elect a representative to Congress, even though they represent a third of the state’s voters. No matter one’s political leanings, these examples strike at basic notions of political legitimacy and fair representation.
A recent pair of op-ed pieces in the New York Times advocated for making the U.S. Government more representative by expanding the number of members of the House of Representatives and by considering more representative electoral systems (such as multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting) to elect members of Congress.
The attention paid by the New York Times to the need for a more effective representation at the federal level is appropriate and encouraging. However, the lack of effective representation identified at by the Times is as pervasive—if not more pervasive—at the state and local level than at the federal level. Consider, for instance, that each County Supervisor in Los Angeles County in California on average represents over 2 million residents, whereas the framers of the U.S. Constitution considered a ratio of 30,000-to-one to be an appropriate standard for electoral representation at the federal level. Or consider that Washington County in Maryland recently elected 5 Republican at-large County Commissioners, even though roughly 40 percent of county residents voted for Democratic candidates.
To the extent that the mid-term election results provided a rebuke of partisan extremism and a desire to place civility, dialogue and democratic values above politics, we should not only consider strengthening democratic representation at the federal level, but ensure that democratic representation is strengthened at the local level–which is where Americans interact most closely with the public sector. Trust in government and the legitimacy of the public sector would be greatly enhanced if elected institutions from the local level on up—including County Commissions, School Boards and Town Councils—represented the views and opinions of all constituents, rather than being used by local power brokers and state political parties on both sides to create geographic power monopolies in a way that pits neighbor against neighbor.
Luckily, the combination of solutions proposed by the Times at the federal level are equally suitable to enhance democratic representation at the local level, and are arguably easier to achieve at the local level than at the state or federal level.
First, drastically increase the size of the county commissions and other local boards and councils: whereas most County Commissions in the U.S. currently have only five members, what would happen if County Commissions would be required to have a minimum of, say, 15 members? This would instantly make counties and other local governments much more inclusive and representative, and would ensure that all constituents’ voices are heard. In doing so, it would reduce the tendency towards partisan extremism, encourage participation, deliberation and dialogue, and reduce the power of state political parties over local decision-making. The cost of such an increase in democratic representation would be minimal, often representing no more than a quarter of one percent of local spending.
Second, the increase in local representation could further be leveraged by moving away from at-large elections and single-member election districts to multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting at the local level. As a practical suggestion, for instance, county governments (and other locally elected bodies) would achieve much greater representation if they elected three commissioners in each of five electoral districts using ranked-choice voting.
So, yes, America needs a Bigger House and a Congress for Every American. But our federal democracy is built from the bottom up, so also: A Local Representative for Every American.