Partisan Cities

My friend David Schleicher has written a fascinating paper on the importance of party competition in local elections. Let me just quote the entire abstract here:

Despite the attention given to the anticompetitive effects of gerrymandering on national and state elections, little notice is paid to the least competitive legislative elections in America: its city council elections. In cities with partisan elections, individual competitive seats are rarer than at the national level and there is almost never competition for partisan control of councils. Nonpartisan city council elections are even worse, with virtually undefeatable incumbents and no policy competition of any kind. The dominant explanation in the political science literature for this phenomenon is that the lack of partisan competition in local elections is a result of the issues at play in local politics. Local politics, the argument goes, is not ideological – it is only about the competence with which public goods are provided and the allocation of these goods to different groups. This claim cannot stand up to scrutiny. Debates over issues like policing strategy and urban development are ideological, and voters do have beliefs about them, but there is still no partisan competition.

This paper argues that the explanation for the lack of partisan competition in city council elections lies in the laws governing these elections. Several laws – by my definition “unitary party rules” – serve to ensure that the national parties are on the ballot in local elections and that candidates, activists and voters do not defect from dominant national parties during local elections. When combined with the little information available about individual council candidates, the existence of the national party heuristic on local ballots crowds out other information and the laws create severe barriers to entry for potential local parties. The result is that the vote in city council elections directly tracks the vote in national elections, despite strong empirical evidence that voters have very different beliefs about local and national issues. In cities in which one party dominates at the national level, there is no competition. Thus, local legislatures are extremely unrepresentative of voter preferences and have little democratic legitimacy. Repealing the unitary party rules would spur a rearrangement of the two-party system at the local level and create party competition at the local level.

Residents of Washington will recognize that the designation “Democrat” is essentially meaningless in local elections. If one assumes that party identification is used to convey important information regarding candidate policy preferences, then it’s easy to imagine how abandoning national party affiliations at the local level, and allowing whatever other parties spring up to fill the gap, might significantly improve election outcomes.

It’s intriguing to imagine the possibility that national local parties might evolve, providing support and money to local candidates around the country who hew to a certain party platform. Ideologically speaking, this happens to a certain extent already, but the removal of distracting Ds and Rs might improve voter awareness of the issues.


  1. I’ll read the paper but….

    1. If you believe Growth Machine (sociology) and Urban Regime (pol. sci.) theory then seeming lack of competition amongst local elites especially wrt elections misses the point, because all are united, roughly around the growth agenda.

    2. The Progressive era was all about regularizing and minimizing the local franchise, reducing the power of ethnic groups, and making sure African-Americans stayed under-franchised.

    So the local political structure also reflects this. See e.g., _Planning the Capitalist City_.

    Like I said, I’ll get to the paper, but I think the topic is more nuanced than people think.

  2. David Schleicher says:


    I hope the paper responds to the first of your comments and agrees with the second, as noted by my disagreement with Progressive-era innovations, like non-partisan elections. I’ve always found both the growth machine and regime politics stories unsatisfying as we don’t assume that elites have unified preferences at other levels of government. In the paper, I explain why I think urban politics likely shares with national and state politics the quality of having voters (and elites) with a range of preferences over issues. At any rate, I hope you enjoy the paper….