Hushing the Minority Voice: Should KC Have At-Large Council Seats?

Kansas City has 6 seats on its Council that are elected by the entire city, instead of by district. While African-Americans comprise ~30% of the city’s population, only 1 of those seats – 17% – is held by an African-American. This election cycle, a white male, Durwin Rice, is running for that seat, having recently moved to the district. Kansas City may soon have an all-white group of at-large council members.

Frankly, I had never given much thought to at-large seats as a policy matter until I read this blog post criticizing Durwin Rice’s candidacy.

I was struck by the incongruity of a white university professor living in Camden, NJ, opining about who should seek the at-large seat of the largely African-American 3rd district of Kansas City. She’s correct in claiming she is an ally of that district, helpfully explaining “which means, I got your back.” Pointedly denying that she could be a good leader for that district, she nevertheless seeks to prevent someone else not “of the district” from running at large, fearing that “her people” (presumably, white people this time) will elect him. It’s a fascinating piece, full of internal conflict and raising all kinds of questions.

It is perhaps unfair to point out that the piece is a white University professor writing from Camden, NJ, to tell a white resident of the 3rd district that he should seek office because he might get elected by the people who get to vote. Passing strange.

All of which is a lengthy introduction to the issue of at-large seats on the Kansas City Council. Why DO we allow people who live up near the airport to vote on who gets to represent people who live at 31st and Indiana? Or vice versa?

As demonstrated by the current under-representation (and potential future non-representation) of African-American at-large Council members, it’s tougher for minority candidates to win at-large races than in-district races. At-large seats have a strong pro-majority, anti-minority bias.

Imagine if, instead of 12 seats divided into 6 districts, we had 12 districts. Perhaps we would see more African-Americans elected. Perhaps we would see a Latino representative. Perhaps we would see large money playing less of a role in our city elections (it’s more expensive to run at-large, while dividing the city into 12 districts would allow a shoe-leather campaign a better chance of winning).

I’d be willing to give up my right to vote for who represents people in the Northeast if I could vote for someone from my neighborhood. What about you?

6 Responses to “Hushing the Minority Voice: Should KC Have At-Large Council Seats?”

  1. emawkc says:

    I think the residents of Johnson County should be given an at-large seat on the council, then you could keep you e-tax.

  2. Chris says:

    Imagine 6 districts with two reps for each district voted in only by residents in that district. Would be easier to institute that change than redraw districts (again.) just a thought. Oh and we could add some stability to the system while we are at it. 4 year terms, 4 term limit regardless of what district you’re representing, and a base pay starting at 50k, only time it can go up is after reelection (by 5%) when the new term begins.

  3. les says:

    The notion of at large reps seems, overall, worthwhile; maybe not half the council. But assuming roughly equally sized districts, isn’t it positive to have at least a/some council types that appeal across multiple districts, perhaps a wider view on things? Or is the assumption that sufficient districts are essentially similar, so all at large types are “theirs.” And, what’s up with identifying at large councilvarmints by district in the first place?

  4. Brent says:

    I know the point of the at-large seats and am undecided as to which solution makes more sense.

    The point of course it to be sure that each resident gets input on one more than 1/2 of the overall votes. So every person, regardless of race or district, has input on 7 council members (the 6 at larges and their own in-district rep).

    This means that regardless of what minority group you’re with, you have input on that vote.

    Let’s go down the road you’re going and assuming that race is a major factor in every vote and that city council members will vote along racial lines in most instances.

    Say you redistrict to 12 smaller districts (which, in theory, I like) and you get a split with 4 minority council members and 8 non minority (which would be statistically better). However, there would be no incentive (other than human decency — which is often lacking at city hall) for the 8 non minorities to ever vote in favor of minority issues because the minority districts had no role in electing them. So every vote comes out against minority council members….and there is very little that the minority groups can do about it.

    So is having 4 minority council members an improvement? Or not if they always get out-voted.

  5. RST says:

    Thanks for the psycho-analysis Dan. I’m afraid I didn’t see this earlier and am just know getting to your judgment on whether I should comment on this matter. I am still a part of the third district, even though I may be working in Camden. Yes, I have a foot in both places. As to 12 districts, it might be a refreshing change. But I don’t think changing the mechanics will have much impact on moving KC to the city it needs to be.

  6. gonemild says:

    Robyne -

    I didn’t attempt psycho-analysis – it was your piece that was full of internal conflict, not you! Nor did I ever claim you shouldn’t comment – your strong opinions are always thought-provoking to me. In this case, your opinion about who is qualified to lead a district while elected by the city made me wonder about the wisdom of at-large seats at all. No insult to you was intended – obviously, I’m not one to think that white people should just shut up.

    Brent – great points, and thank you for making them. I think the fact that the at-large councilmembers are accountable to voters across the city is a strong reason to keep at-large seats, but, on the other hand, who do they listen to? Also, there is the risk of having “representatives” of a district turn out to be carpet-baggers, without real roots in the district.

    Interesting stuff. I think.

Leave a Reply