There are few cities with the same reputation for corruption as the city of Chicago. Its historic system of aldermanic privilege turned the 50 wards of the Chicago City Council into 50 fiefdoms, giving each alderman significant power over their domain. For decades, quid pro quo corruption was an open secret amongst aldermen in a city with few laws to hold them to account. Moreover, the city’s district lines have been gerrymandered and are highly segregated; despite being an incredibly diverse city, 76% of the city’s wards have just one racial group constituting more than 25% of the population. As a side effect of this, the city incentivizes and essentially requires racial segregation for residents that desire reflective representation; if a black resident wants an alderman that looks like them, they need to move to a black neighborhood. This model of representation also has repercussions for communities that aren’t as highly segregated; Latinx and Asian Americans are both under-represented on the Chicago city council.
All of this is background for a ground-breaking report just released by the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG), a project based at Tufts University that examines the potential of various redistricting proposals. Led by Moon Duchin of Tufts University and Justin Solomon of MIT, the report examines the efficacy of several reform proposals, ranging from simply drawing better districts and reducing the size of the city council to completely restructuring the way members of city council are elected and what district lines represent.
After using computer modeling to simulate three different electoral methods applied to 30,000 different district maps, weighing metrics such as the impacts on racial and economic equity and the ability for new candidates to win elections, the report came down in favor of a system that achieves proportional representation. The idea of proportional representation is to create an elected body that, as closely as possible, reflects the electorate in terms of whatever voting blocs voters are made up of, whether that be race, economic status, geography, or support for a particular issue. Proportional representation is most easily achieved through a combination of two tweaks to elections: the use of multi-member districts and the use of preferential voting.
Every single consideration discussed in this report favors the move from single-member plurality elections to multi-member districts with ranked choice voting. The many civic benefits are enumerated above, including better optics of district shape, holistic rather than delicately engineered diversity, better proportionality, lower entry barrier for new members, increased responsiveness to smaller constituent groups, opportunities for improved economic parity, and an end to the “fiefdom” era of city government.
Currently, most of the United States, including Chicago, uses single-member districts to elect their representatives. That means one single representative represents each district. The problem with this system is that if a particular voting bloc has 50% plus one of the vote in all of the districts, they will win 100% of the seats despite representing just half the population. This reality has significant implications when considering racial equity; even when a racial minority is a significant portion of a population, if those voters aren’t segregated enough to constitute a majority in any particular district, they may never have the ability elect a representative. This phenomena is very similar to the reality that makes at-large elections, where candidates campaign to represent an entire jurisdiction instead of just one part of it, dilute the voting power of communities of color. But when candidates campaign to represent 1/5th of a district, instead of the entire district, the threshold of winning election drops from 50% plus one to about 1/5th the vote.
When paired with a preferential voting system like ranked choice voting, this lowered threshold results in elected bodies that look a lot like the people they represent. This is one of the core reasons More Equitable Democracy supports the transition to systems of proportional representation. To read more about the history of proportional representation or the details of MGGG’s research and findings, check out the full report.