The Austin City Council and various neighborhood groups are currently exploring options for creating single-member districts to elect members of Austin’s city council. Currently the council’s six members are elected at-large via citywide elections. Under the new proposals, the city would be divided into six districts, thus ensuring every part of the city was represented on the Council.
Austin’s at-large city council structure makes it an anomaly. Austin is currently the largest city in the country without single-member districts. Coincidentally, Austin also has one of the lowest rates of voter turnout nationwide in local elections.
Single-member districts can help curb that voter apathy primarily by making city council representatives more accountable to their constituents by giving those representatives a smaller constituency. It follows that a city council member would be more knowledgeable of the needs and wants of one-sixth of the city’s population, especially if he or she hails from that part of town. Likewise, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a city council member to authentically represent the interests of over 790,000 constituents, as is required by the current city council structure.
Students in particular would benefit from a switch to geographical representation. Such a move would solidify Austin’s student population as a formidable voting bloc and would require candidates who decide to run for a Central Austin district to take student concerns seriously. Of course, that legitimacy can only become a reality if students increase their level of participation in local elections, which has historically been pathetically low.
Yet creating districts for geographical representations spawns controversial issues of its own, especially when so many of the interested parties bring their own political agendas to the table. Austin is no stranger to gerrymandering via the state legislature, and Austinites should be wary of that type of behavior from local officials.
For the sake of maintaining a healthy and representative democracy, Austin badly needs single-member districts. The only questions that remain are logistical: Who gets to draw the district borders, what demographic requirements must be met, etc. We hope, for the sake of this city’s future, that our leaders will not allow themselves to be drawn into the type of childish political games that our state and federal representatives engage in when they draw their electoral maps. In the meantime, we encourage you to contact your city council members and advocate for creating single-member districts this year. It should be easy; you have six of them.