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For all that our cultural moment reveres localism in matters of food and drink and commerce, city government tends to remain an obscure arena even for the otherwise politically engaged. As for the structure of municipal government — how its institutions and political processes function — that initially sounds even more esoteric, the domain of academics and cranky neighborhood activists. Yet the truth is that how we elect local leaders determines the sorts of people who win office, which in turn determines the course of the history of the city.
That's the importance of a recent study out of Hendrix College titled "Governance in Little Rock, Arkansas: At-Large and District Elections and the Impact on Representation," authored primarily by Jay Barth and Kiril Kolev. Both are faculty in the college's politics department; anthropology professor Brett Hill and Lora Adams, a student, also contributed to the paper. After examining the results of 128 races for Little Rock city government between 1957 and 2012, the authors conclude that a shift to a system in which representatives are elected entirely based on geographic wards — as opposed to citywide at-large races — would result in more minority and female members on the City Board of Directors and "create more vibrant, competitive, and less expensive elections in the city."
There are two ways a city can elect its leaders. Some cities (typically smaller ones) choose from a slate of at-large candidates to represent the entire city, while others geographically subdivide into wards, each of which elects its own representative(s). A few cities, like Little Rock, do both. Out of the 10 seats on the City Board, three are elected at-large and the other seven are elected by ward. The hybrid model was approved by Little Rock voters in the 1990s; before that, the board was made up of seven members, all of whom were elected at-large.
That blended system is convenient for social scientists, said Barth (who also regularly writes a column for the Arkansas Times), "because it provides both at play in the same place. It introduces a lot of controls and allows us to look at variance between these two techniques for electing people within the same city."
But some say the three at-large positions effectively constitute a means by which the whiter, wealthier segments of the city continue to exert undue influence on the board. It's more difficult for minority candidates to gain a foothold when running for citywide seats, the argument goes, both because Little Rock's racially divided electorate is less likely to vote for people of color in at-large campaigns and because those elections are larger and therefore more costly. The current composition of the City Board seems to bear this out. The population of Little Rock is about 42 percent African-American, and three out of the seven city directors elected by ward are black. Among ward directors, then, city leadership corresponds proportionally to racial demographics: The three African-American directors represent 43 percent of the board. However, all three of the at-large directors are white. (Although Hispanics now constitute at least 5 percent of the city, the board has never had a Hispanic director.)
"The idea is to cancel out minority votes [on the board], so as to leave control in the hands of a handful of people in town. ... It is a deliberate neglect, a lack of inclusion," said Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock), the civil rights attorney who's been shouting for decades about the disenfranchisement of Little Rock's black community.
The Hendrix study doesn't make any claims about such intent, but it does show that individual wards are much more likely to vote for a minority candidate than the city as a whole. Data from the past half-century of Little Rock city races reveals that, "about 87.6 percent of at-large elections have resulted in the election of a white candidate, compared to about 59 percent of the ward ones." Bottom line: If we want the racial makeup of our city leadership to more closely reflect the demographics of Little Rock, eliminate the at-large seats.
Gene Fortson, one of the city's three at-large directors, acknowledged that ward elections may result in more minority representation in general, but questioned whether the race of elected officials should be such a matter of emphasis.
"Sometimes I disagree with the basic assumption that people can only vote for issues that happen to benefit people that have the same color skin they have. I'm supposed to represent an entire city, which is 48 percent minority, and so if I'm going to do my job, I better be colorblind," he said. "I think the voting history of the at-large directors has not shown a history of a racial bias."
Fortson said the system allows for cooperation between at-large and ward directors on projects. "There is an assumption that at-large directors would vote as a block, which is not true, or that all of the at-large directors would necessarily vote in opposition to something ward directors might need. I'd love to see an academic study done over a multiyear period about voting records of at-large directors on specific issues compared to voting records of ward directors." As examples of such cooperation, he cited the 12th Street police substation and the West Central Community Center to be constructed on Colonel Glenn Road, located respectively in the wards of directors Ken Richardson and Doris Wright (both of whom are African American).
Walker, though, sees Little Rock's larger patterns of development as the product of a City Board whose composition is inclined to be sympathetic to westward white flight.
"Chenal and all that area out there represents movement of [city] institutions from downtown to the west," he said. Walker argues that the city's concerted investment in transportation infrastructure and city services in West Little Rock have worked to the detriment of neighborhoods closer to downtown and lower-income areas. "The tax revenue base is not out west. It's basically the areas of the old city, and the industrial district near the port. ... The use of the money in the inner city — they build police stations and call them community centers. They don't build up parks. The housing that they once promoted they now leave in despair."
Walker has fought to eliminate the three at-large positions on the City Board both in court and in the General Assembly. In 2015, he sponsored legislation that would switch Little Rock to an all-ward system, but it went nowhere, as did a similar bill in 2011. In 2007, he filed a lawsuit claiming Little Rock's hybrid system underrepresents minorities; although he withdrew the suit, Walker said he planned to move forward with similar litigation in the future.
In a city that continues to be de facto segregated by race, it makes intuitive sense that a ward system would be friendlier to minority candidates. A more surprising finding from the Hendrix study is that there's an even stronger correlation between ward elections and female representation. The paper states that ward elections "reduce the likelihood of electing a male candidate from 81.1 percent to 51.9 percent." (It should be noted that one of the three current at-large directors is female, while four out of the seven current ward directors are women.) Barth said the higher cost of at-large races is the key driver. "If elections are cheaper, then political money doesn't matter as much, and we know from a whole line of research that women do have special challenges when it comes to fundraising. In a ward election, networks of friends and neighbors are as valuable as advertising money. Women disproportionately have a lot of those networks through both formal and informal organizations — churches, community groups, PTAs — where women have been central players over the long haul." (Why the gender gap in fundraising? "Research indicates that through socialization, women tend to be a little bit more hesitant to ask for money," Barth said, although this appears to be changing.)
The Hendrix study makes it clear that successful at-large campaigns are far more expensive: "Average total campaign expenditures for winners in at-large elections since 1992 has been about $50,227, compared to merely $8,767 in ward ones. For runners-up, the two numbers are $26,061 and $3,993, respectively."
Fortson, the at-large director, acknowledged that citywide campaigns are pricier, but said most city races of either category "are not won with advertising — they're elected with face-to-face, door-to-door campaigning."
The main argument advanced by proponents of at-large seats is that such directors may be more likely to look after the interests of the city as a whole. "There are occasions when a balanced view of a larger perspective sometimes can offset what can be a more narrow view of a ward perspective only," Fortson said. "I think that has worked to the city's advantage over the long haul, rather than one-on-one board competition." He said it's a "balancing act" analogous to the structure of U.S. Congress, in which members of the House of Representatives are elected by geographic subdivision of states, while members of the Senate are elected statewide.
Barth is careful to qualify that the Hendrix paper doesn't address that issue at all. Like any scientific study, it's built to answer narrow, specific questions about cause and effect. "This project doesn't look at all at whether at-large elections might have some other benefits," Barth said. "We really don't investigate that normative debate at all. And I think that's a natural question — to what degree does this matter in terms of how these candidates vote on ordinances, on how resources are divvied up in the city? ... How do you separate holistic thinking vs. provincial thinking? All of those issues are really outside the scope of this."
What the study does show is that ward-based elections are more likely to result in a City Board whose composition is consistent with the demographics of Little Rock as a whole. "I think we can with confidence say that ward elections do promote more gender diversity and more racial diversity," Barth said.
Whether or not you think that indicates it's time for another change in how Little Rock elects its directors probably depends on whether you tend to think of equitable racial and gender representation as an essential component of true democracy, or as a nice political lagniappe — all well and good when it happens, but hardly the point of governance.
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