Most of the post-election chatter has focused on Virginia, where Democrats won the legislature for the first time in a generation, and Kentucky, where Democrats appear to have won the governorship.
There are certainly lessons to be drawn from both these states, but those lessons are limited. Virginia has been trending blue for some time now; this election certainly changes the dynamics in Richmond but it won’t change the prospects for 2020. Virginia will surely go for the Democratic candidate next year. Likewise, Kentucky’s election was driven almost entirely by the unpopularity of the Republican governor; nobody expects Kentucky to go Democratic in 2020.
Better insight might come from a state whose results are less talked about: Pennsylvania. There, Democrats won control of one Philadelphia suburb for the first time ever — an emphatic example of a much larger trend, the realignment of the suburbs. Realignments tend to be Newtonian, though — for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. Republicans won multiple localities in rural and small-town Pennsylvania for the first time in generations. These are competing trends that are remaking American politics.
That’s not what this is about, though. Instead, what we noticed was what Politico had to say about the Republican collapse in Philadelphia: “In Philly, the Working Families Party made history by winning one of the two seats on the City Council that is reserved for candidates who are not part of the majority party — in other words, the Democratic Party. Republicans had held those set-aside seats for decades.”
What exactly are these “set-aside seats”? This piqued our interest because Roanoke City Council wants to move council elections from May to November on the grounds that November elections generate more turnout. That’s caused us — and, we notice, others — to ask questions about other aspects of council elections.
For instance, why does Roanoke elect council members at-large? For better or worse, a ward system would create a different kind of council. We wouldn’t have a council whose members tend to be clustered in the more affluent, southern part of the city, for instance. Neighborhoods that haven’t had one of their residents on council in decades suddenly would — southeast Roanoke being the prime example.
Interestingly, those pushing for a ward system — which was put to a referendum in 1997 and defeated 54% to 46% — have historically been left of center. At-large systems reward candidates who can appeal city-wide and penalize candidates who are strong only in one part of the city. That’s why historically the business community has liked at-large elections — it tends to produce more moderate candidates. Ward proponents in the past have seen wards as a way to elect more liberal candidates, although more recent election trends suggest another outcome: Some parts of the city (again, southeast Roanoke, which voted strong for Donald Trump) might elect more conservative ones to a council that hasn’t seen a Republican win in 19 years.
In some ways, the present at-large system is a form of gerrymandering — similar to the multi-member House of Delegates districts that Virginia had until the early 1980s. Then it took an odd couple coalition of Republicans and African American Democrats to create single-member districts — which promptly saw the election of more of both. That’s why a ward system in Roanoke would test liberal sensibilities: Would Democrats back a system that might see more liberal members elected in some parts of the city but might put some Republicans on council?
That’s not the only way to fashion elections, though, and that brings us back to Philadelphia. That city’s charter has an unusual provision. There are 17 seats on City Council — 10 elected by districts, seven at-large. However, the charter forbids a political party from nominating more than five candidates for those seven at-large seats. Because Democrats historically sweep Philadelphia, that means the remaining two at-large seats are effectively reserved for Republicans. Except this year, when a left-wing third party won the two “set-aside” seats.
Now, we’re not advocating this system for Roanoke. It seems weird — and an infringement on voters’ rights. If voters want to elect seven Democrats (or seven of anything), why shouldn’t they be able to? The point is, if Roanoke wants to tinker with how we elect city council, there are lots of ways to do so.
Americans have what the British call a “first past the post” system — whoever gets the most votes wins. That seems pretty basic to us, but there are those who criticize it. Their main objection: Minority groups get completely shut out. Those minorities need not be ethnic minorities, they can be ideological minorities. Many countries — from Albania to Uruguay — have proportional systems. Each party puts forth a list of candidates and voters cast ballots for one party or the other. If Party A wins 60% of the vote, and Party B gets 40%, then Party A gets 60% of the seats in parliament and the other party gets 40%. If you’re a candidate, the higher you are on the party’s official list, the better your chance of winning a seat.
If Roanoke had a system like that for city council, what would happen? Well, first let’s assume the city would still elect a mayor at-large so that leaves six council seats. Further, let’s assume the city aligns its elections with federal elections the way council wants. Finally, let’s go back in time and assume there were council elections in 2016 and 2018 and the council vote matched the federal vote that year. In 2016, Hillary Clinton took 56.5% of the city’s vote, Donald Trump 37.5%. That means Democrats would have taken 2 council seats, Republicans 1. In 2018, Tim Kaine took 64.4% in the city, Corey Stewart 33.6%. That would still work out to 2 Democratic seats, 1 Republican one. The overall result: Instead of having a council with five Democrats and two independents (one of whom was previously elected as a Democrat), we’d have a council with five Democrats (one of them the mayor) and two actual Republicans. (A proportional system would also mean the real election would be the party nominations.)
Irony: Roanoke Republicans would be better off with a European-style proportional system and Democrats would be better off with the current system that works against certain neighborhoods.