WONK TODAY: District elections for city council

A weekly deep dive into city policy and arcana. Today's question: "Should city council go to district elections, and what would they look like?"

UPDATE #1: Mayor Manheimer reads an email from Sen. Apodaca's replacement, Senator Chuck Edwards, declaring his intent to file a bill splitting Asheville into six districts, in the next legislative session. Unlike Apodaca's bill, Edwards's bill seems to give Asheville some leeway to draw its own districts, but it would still set the number at six. Edwards says he's "confident" the measure will pass. Council votes to proceed with gauging public support for districts, albeit on an accelerated timeline. (Asheville Citizen-Times)

UPDATE #2: Asheville Chamber Legislative Affairs Director Corey Atkins, a 2015 council candidate and South Asheville resident, writes on behalf of the Chamber: "Regardless of the plan put forward, let’s not waste time or taxpayer money on figuring out if. That decision ostensibly has been made for us. Let’s now focus on how to go forward fairly and effectively." Unlike Apodaca's and Edwards's bill, the Chamber supports a potentially lower number of districts ("4 or 6") and citywide final vote. (Chamber E-News)

ORIGINAL POST: In June 2016, retiring state Senator Tom Apodaca lobbed a parting bombshell in Asheville's direction: a bill requiring that Asheville city elections, currently held at-large with a citywide vote, be broken into six council districts each holding their own elections, plus a citywide mayoral race. "Bottom line is the people of South Asheville need better representation," Senator Apodaca said, explaining the move.

The new district map would have created a guaranteed council seat for a city resident south of the Parkway, as well as a combined Shiloh-Oakley-Kenilworth district, a Haw Creek-Chestnut-Town Mountain district, and a West Asheville representative west of Louisiana Avenue, among others. Half the districts would have voted in one municipal election year (i.e., 2017), then the other half plus the mayor two years later (2019), alternating in odd-numbered years after that. Surely by design given the Apodaca's strained relationship with city government, the new districts would have crammed three current council members (Mayfield, Haynes, and Smith) into one downtown-West Asheville district, and two others (Wisler and Bothwell) into another, leaving three uncontested seats representing the far western, eastern and southern ends of the city.

The bill cleared the state Senate on the strength of Sen. Apodaca's clout there (and some misdirection about local support for the "local bill") before running into surprising bipartisan opposition in the House. Representative John Blust of Guilford County took to the floor, saying:

This is a local bill.  And you wonder why what’s going on in politics is going on today.  It is a local bill that’s not eligible by our rules and our rules mean nothing.  Your word means nothing…. When it’s my last day I wanna walk outta here knowing I never crawled.  I’m not gonna crawl out of here.  Even if I get nothing.  I’m gonna hold my head up high and think I did the best I could and I didn’t compromise principle.

 An impassioned speech by no less than Republican Michael Speciale of New Bern summed up the arguments against:

The vision of the anointed, that we know better than the people, the citizens of Asheville, because we may not agree ideologically with the citizens of Asheville or the city council of Asheville.  I’m sorry but we don’t need to agree with them because we don’t live there.  And the people that live there selected those people that are representing them on the city council and we don’t have to like them or agree with them.

And with that, Senator Apodaca watching on from the edge of the House floor, the bill failed. Apodaca stepped down shortly before November's election to become a lobbyist. Other issues soon occupied the attention of the General Assembly. Meanwhile, after its narrow escape, two sides of Asheville contemplated how to move forward. On one side, local officials led by Councilwoman Wisler trying to figure out how to avert another move by Raleigh taking control of local elections out of the city's hands; in a January vote, council decided to explore creating districts on its own, starting with a broad survey of city residents. On the other side, residents of South Asheville and the outskirts continue to press for state action, believing they're underrepresented in a city that historically tends to elect council members from tight precincts in North (and lately, West) Asheville.

All of which got some of us local politicos thinking: What are the upsides and downsides to district elections? Is there a good reason the city should consider them besides being forced to? If we were forced to move to council districts, what's the best way to do that?

To start at the beginning, there are, unsurprisingly, both pros and cons to holding district elections. (The UNC School of Government is a great resource here. Most of the following is pulled from their compilations of research.) On the plus side, city districts tend to elect more minority representatives (though, weirdly, fewer women.) Representatives tend to be more focused on the needs of their respective wards or constituencies compared to at-large councils. Smaller elections require less funding, lowering barriers to participation by low-income or new candidates. That's not a small matter in city races that have come to see historically high spending. More racial diversity on councils is correlated with better racial diversity among city staff, as councils tend to hire candidates of the same race.

On the other hand, there is the lower representation by women. Districts formed to consolidate one constituency, like black voters, can have the effect of peeling black voters away from surrounding neighborhoods. This is the "cramming" effect of gerrymandering visible in NC politics. A black-dominated district can guarantee a black representative, but piling black voters into one district can mean whiter surrounding districts, leading to less chance of minority representatives holding more than one seat. District elections tend to have lower turnout, not higher as some have claimed. That could be a problem with Asheville's already-abysmal municipal turnout. Also, council members elected from districts are more likely to engage in "log-rolling," i.e., I'll vote for your project in your district if you'll vote for the one in mine. They seem less adapted to handle big-picture concerns -- how to concentrate resources on a transformational downtown or riverfront project, for example, or what to do about a citywide affordability crisis -- and more likely to focus on narrow, parochial concerns, for better or worse: fixing a particular sidewalk or stopping a particular development. That can be good or bad, when a major complaint in every neighborhood is a lack of focus on street-level problems. But in a city faced with huge questions of gentrification and an overall vision, it can mean a fractious, parochial council unable to pull together on big issues. Council members representing districts seem to be slower to raise taxes, too. (That could be a feature or bug; your mileage, or millage, may vary.

More importantly, Asheville's current representation doesn't come from nowhere and, going on a limb here, it doesn't exclude certain parties or areas of the city for no reason. In a city that supported Clinton over Trump by 50%+ margins, that backed the recent municipal bonds 75-25 and is generally okay with taxes and big public works, it's no surprise city representatives tend to be liberal Democrats. (Does that mean there should be a token, guaranteed seat for a conservative council member? Interesting argument for affirmative action, conservatives!) It's absolutely true that a longtime network of donors and experienced campaign volunteers, famously called the local "Machine," gives a leg up to candidates who can access it. But that hold is not unbreakable, and can even be a liability, as the last election shows.

(I ran in that election, not included in the widely-circulated slate of mainstream Asheville Democrats but not fully part of the alternate "Green slate," either. My strategy then, like now, was to peel off voters from every constituency, from mainstream Democrats and progressives and moderates and business-minded conservatives. From Kenilworth -- which I won -- and South and North Asheville, to my own home neighborhood, something I couldn't have done if I was limited to running for votes in my district. It didn't turn out to be a winning strategy; I came in one place out of a winning spot. But I'm still convinced the best route for an upset candidate is to piece together like-minded voters from all over the city.* Districts undo that. If you're running against a ward boss who's tied up a couple thousand votes in his district and poised to permanently win, you have nowhere to go for votes to unseat him. This was the situation of Baltimore council challengers at a Wellstone training I went to. They were all running against 30+ year bosses who nobody could shake out.)

But there are machines and "Machines." North, and lately West, Asheville have robust traditions of neighborhood activism, committee participation, and civic engagement that farther-out and newer areas of the city are just beginning to tap into. Neighborhood organizations are important "farm teams" that give a start to aspiring candidates. Committees and commissions provide entrees into civic life and build networks, but they get few applicants from outside the traditional volunteer bases of Montford, Northside, EWANA, and the like. That's not to lay the blame on the rest of town. The "machine" parts of Asheville are full of professionals and retirees with ample free time for midday meetings. Participation and a history of representation makes them entitled, which leads to more participation, while a history of feeling excluded and unrepresented does the opposite in Enka and South Asheville. You only need to look at the last council election's turnout numbers to see where the votes come from:


The far south side of town represented by Apodaca's District 6 on the map above had about 544 municipal voters. Montford neighborhood had nearly that many all by itself. Setting aside the idea that a vote for your own district's representative would bring more voters to the polls (UNC SOG says otherwise,) that means a winning candidate for the Senator's custom-made Biltmore Park district would need around 273 votes to win a seat on council, controlling a $150,000,000 budget and decisions that stretch into West, East and North, too. A connected local could drum that up in a weekend, and once in power could be fairly sure of holding it indefinitely. Apodaca's North Asheville District 3, on the other hand, regularly turns out 2,000 to 3,000 voters in city elections. It would take roughly four times as many votes in a North Asheville district to win the same seat a South Asheville candidate could do with minimal effort. That hardly seems small-d democratic.

There's one place the usual patterns of participation and power don't pan out, though. Despite having century-old community institutions, strong neighborhood associations, and a long history of political participation, black Asheville tends to be slightly underrepresented on council. Councilman Keith Young, currently serving his second year, brings minority representation to about 14%, roughly matching the city's demographics. But the gap between Young's election and Mayor Terry Bellamy's retirement saw two years of all-white council, and even going back to Bellamy's first council race, you see black candidates winning a lower number of races than their numbers in the community would seem to predict. There's a lot of economics and demographics around this, and certainly white voters don't only vote for white candidates or vice versa. But among the clearest cases for council districts, the research supports that they increase racial diversity, both among elected officials, in staffing and more equitable policymaking. That by itself seems like a worthwhile outcome of districting.

So we're left with: Districts may be worth it to

  • Increase diversity
  • Reduce costs and barriers to running
  • Generate a focus on district issues around the city
  • Keep the state legislature from creating districts we don't want.

Arguing against, districts:

  • Increase log-rolling and division
  • Reduce women's chances
  • Decrease turnout
  • Cap the opportunities for minority candidates through cramming
  • Lead to very low turnout races winnable by hundreds of votes
  • Increase "ward bossing"
  • Aren't a huge public demand, outside a few areas.

Is there a way to have those positive things but avoid the negative? Well, sure. The current city council could make sure to pay more attention to the suburbs when deciding on infrastructure and capital spending, for example. We could hold meetings around the area in neighborhoods themselves, as council did a few years ago. We could start public financing for city elections. We could increase diversity initiatives, strengthen neighborhood groups that farm up future leaders, and leverage our leadership role among North Carolina cities to hold the line against adverse legislation. We could do all that without changing the format of elections at all.

But the city should move to districts anyway. One, there's no guarantee we could hold off legislation forever, and whatever comes isn't likely to be on favorable terms. Two, the downsides of districts can be minimized. It's just that Apodaca's plan doesn't do that very well, probably because he didn't care to.

For starters, Apodaca's districts are too small, leading to the problem of a council member only accountable to 250 or so voters, and they only have one council member each. In the bill's awkward plan, half of Asheville would only vote in odd-numbered year elections every fourth year, for their own district rep and mayor, while the other half would vote for only a district rep one off-year election, then for only the mayor the next time, and so on. If turnout is exceptionally low under the current at-large system, just 12% in the last city general, then imagine if voters have to remember whether they're voting in 2019, 2023, and 2027, or in 2021, 2025, and 2029. (A bill proposing to move city elections to even years was just introduced in Raleigh. There's lots of pros and cons to that, too, maybe for a future Wonk Today.)

Put another way, Apodaca's plan proposed to divide Asheville's 65,000 registered voters, only 7,000 of whom regularly turn out to vote for council, by six, making districts of only 11,000 or so registered voters each with an average turnout of 1,300. For comparison, the lowest reporting district in Charlotte had 6,000 voters turn out (for an uncontested race) with an average turnout of about 7,500. Each of Charlotte's seven precincts has about 75,000 registered voters, more than the entire city of Asheville.**

Why not instead follow Buncombe county's model: Three districts with two council members each, with the two running in opposite years, Candidate A in 2019, 2023, 2027 and Candidate B in 2021, 2025, 2029, so every Asheville voter elects a new council member every election? The mayor, like the County Commission chair, would run citywide every four years, just like happens now. Most likely a three-district election wouldn't give Apodaca a guaranteed-enough seat for his South Asheville constituents, but in fairness to his intentions, districts could be drawn to make things competitive for historically disfavored constituencies.

Ideal districts would have roughly the same number of registered voters and the same turnout. Drawing from the last city elections, that means about 21,500 registered voters each, 2,600 of whom regularly show up at election time in each. Ideally, each would be united around some common set of issues -- say traffic in South Asheville -- but diverse enough to require really pulling together across race lines and other interest areas. We would say they should be geographically coherent: no gerrymandered snake districts designed by a demographic computer program. They should follow voting precinct lines. They shouldn't be designed to shoulder out a current council member, say by cramming a West-West, East-West and Chicken Hill candidate into a district with only one seat.

They should each have public housing complexes and a toehold in downtown, two vital citywide concerns. They should each contain historically black neighborhoods, but should help those neighborhoods' odds of fielding a viable candidate. Put that all together and you get a map like this:

West District, in red, combines West Asheville, Montford, West End and Southside. You can easily imagine it uniting around housing, transit, parks and economic justice, the major priorities of current residents Gordon Smith, Julie Mayfield, and Brian Haynes, but also the concerns of Enka Lake and Emma residents, and the public housing residents in Deaverview, Pisgah View and Hillcrest.

North District, in blue, pulls in Beaver Lake, North Side, Town Mountain, Grace and East End. Its priorities could be the current council's (Gwen Wisler, Cecil Bothwell, Keith Young and Mayor Manheimer live there): Parking, downtown development, safety on Merrimon and Charlotte Street and jobs, with East End and Klondyke represented.

East/South District, tan, would include Kenilworth, Haw Creek, Oakley, Shiloh, and South Asheville. It may prioritize traffic and fighting overdevelopment of apartments on busy roads, plus public goods like sidewalks and parks in historically underrepresented areas of town. No current council member lives there -- the most recent, Chris Pelly, was the first East Ashevillean elected in 34 years -- but several of last election's candidates (Corey Atkins, Lindsey Simerly, Grant Millin, Joe Grady, and Dee Williams) lived there. Former council member Joe Dunn, leading the charge for districts, lives there. 2017 candidate Vijay Kapoor lives there, and this candidate, Rich Lee, now lives in Haw Creek. Any of us would have had a more competitive race on this map.

The boundaries are subject to haggling, but the result could be big, wide-ranging constituencies that an enterprising candidate could pull together in a campaign. Big enough to require some outreach and compromise, big enough that there are excess votes for a challenger to pull together, and no one's ever "locked in" to his or her comfy ward. Big enough to support two candidates serving staggered terms, like the county. Believe it or not, all the districts above, even the long East/South District, contain nearly identical numbers of registered voters with nearly identical turnout.

But there's one more piece: The decisions a council member makes aren't limited to his own backyard. Council is imbued with the power to direct scarce city funds to repaving their own streets, but also the responsibility to consider the needier street across town. Wherever they live, they can approve a new business, a new bus line, or a concrete plant or substation on your block. They need to be accountable to you, wherever you live.

For that reason, Asheville should have a blended election: Only residents of a district vote in their own primary, but then, with the field winnowed down to two or three candidates from each district, the entire city votes for one candidate from West District, one candidate from North District, and one from East/South. The districts would guarantee seats for two residents of each side of the city; the primary would let areas advance their own choices; but ultimately every city voter would have the chance to vote in our turn out every member of council. This is to reduce log-rolling, to make sure the representative from North Asheville cares about your concerns in South Asheville at least as far as he cares about your vote in a general election, to keep any council member from being protected from the consequences of her decisions affecting the other side of town.

Coming back to Apodaca, there's little chance he'd be satisfied by this map if his goal was to guarantee a South Asheville conservative on council. (If his goal was to make things competitive for his allies? Then maybe.) Perhaps the city could go ahead and opt for a system like this, only to be pre-empted in a few years by a state law looking to gerrymander the right districts for the folks running Raleigh, who knows. It would be harder for state lawmakers to make that case, though, if Asheville had already done the work of deciding what districts it wanted for itself. John Blust and Michael Speciale would be even more likely to vote down any tinkering from outside, if anything.

What about the rest of us? Well, assuming the same crop of candidates and votes as 2015, the new map would have produced a Councilman Young, Councilman Haynes, and Councilwoman Simerly last time, with Lindsey taking the spot Julie Mayfield won. It would have advanced Haynes and Mayfield out of the primary for West District, Hunt and Young for the North, and Simerly and Atkins for East/South. That's bound to have some appeal for people who thought East and South Asheville were unfairly shouldered out, and for those who liked Atkins's pro-business, pro-South pitch. (Not so great for? This candidate who finished third among West Ashevilleans.) Just as likely, districts would have led to different campaigns altogether, maybe even with a totally different crop of candidates, which is fine.

Anyway, it's something we should start thinking about, and fast, if recent rumblings are any indication. The city's tendency in this type of thing is to slow-walk the process: perform a phone survey to gauge interest, maybe appoint a panel. This won't work, as the process will be seen, rightly or wrongly, as controlled by a self-interested ruling cabal. More to the point, there's no clear reason why something should have to crack majority approval before moving forward. Residents of the city want the process re-examined. That should be good enough reason to move ahead. They want broader representation and better chances of seating their neighbors? Let's look at how to make that happen, as long as it's fair to those who prefer the status quo or, god knows, don't have a dog in the fight either way.

Because here's the real crux of the matter: The push for districts is only one sign of the nearly-universal sense that we're not all being looked out for. You can divide the city along almost any line, geographically, racially, economically, and find people left out, people who don't see a champion for themselves up there. That's not a unique sentiment to Asheville. It elected Donald Trump and drove the surprising candidacy of Bernie Sanders. It's a sign of economic stagnation, of increasing separation between groups getting ahead and groups falling behind, and it's not going away with a phone survey or set of best intentions. Who knows if a council district and cautious set of changes even will. Asheville isn't unique in this, but we're at the front lines, and we have the means and brains to do it. To paraphrase: Why the heck not? What do we have to lose?


 * Think about it as a conservative candidate, too: With so little conservative affiliation left in this city, you'd have to get the votes of Biltmore Park Republicans, Sondley Republicans, your minority cohort of like-minded voters from every corner of town. Which gives you better odds? A tailor-made Long Shoals-Biltmore Park district gerrymandered for a Republican majority, or a citywide sweep that can pull together every precinct's Republicans?

** Charlotte also has a blended district and at-large council. I don't think Asheville is big enough for that yet.