Plan to eliminate City Council seats and overhaul district boundaries would empower wealthier, whiter south Minneapolis

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On Wednesday the Minneapolis Charter Commission was presented with a proposal to cut the number of city council seats from 13 to 9. The plan would also replace 3 district-based ward seats with at-large members elected by a citywide vote. This would reduce the number of wards (districts) by more than half — from 13 to 6.

Minneapolis’ City Clerk and top elections official, Casey Carl, spoke bluntly about the “wealth of research” showing the racist effects of such a radical change to the way voters elect members of the city council.

According to Carl, “research and practice in other jurisdictions” shows that “at-large elections do tend to favor white, wealthier, homeowning, property owning, higher educational status people.”

Carl added: “Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg stated that along with racial gerrymandering… at-large elections are the primary means of diluting the power of the vote and denying equal opportunity for minority voters and candidates.”

The plan was presented to the charter commission by south Minneapolis resident Tom Basting. It’s important to note that Basting is a lawyer representing a group currently suing the city over the recently approved Minneapolis 2040 plan. (I explain at the bottom of this post why I believe that’s essential context for what’s happening here.)

Basting explained the proposal as simply duplicating the structure used to elect the Minneapolis park board and school board: six district-based seats plus three at-large seats.

Here’s how Carl responded to that argument:

“The council is not like the school board or the park board. I’m sorry to have to put that out there, but it’s not. The park board and the school board are single-purpose, limited jurisdiction governments. The city council is the legislative body of the city. All the power of municipal government is invested in that council.”

Skepticism from commissioners

Two of the 15 commissioners asked questions indicating deep skepticism towards the proposal.

“The city council we have today is the most diverse city council we’ve ever had,” said commissioner Al Giraud-Isaacson. “As a person of color… I don’t want to go back to where it’s harder for people who look like me to win an election…”

Commissioner Dan Cohen (former 60s-era city council member): “In reading this proposal, it seems to me you have provided a solution without a problem. I don’t believe that the premise you have brought to our attention, that this is a system fraught with parochialism, is valid…”

City’s top election official speaks about at-large voting

City Clerk Casey Carl, while noting his professional obligation to remain neutral, said he felt it was “imperative” for commissioners to consider the research:

  • “at-large elections do tend to favor white, wealthier, homeowning, property owning, higher educational status people.”
  • “It also tends to disproportionately have a negative impact on women, especially on women-led households, on people of color, highly-mobile populations–half of the population [in Minneapolis] are renters.”
  • “There have been numerous court cases that have overthrown at-large elections & required communities to go back to district- or ward-based, for these reasons. Courts have even overturned decisions made by voters… because it seems to have violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
  • “History shows us here in Minneapolis the largest voting turnout is in Wards 11, 12, 13, and 7. Most likely that means at-large candidates would campaign in those wards to get elected, which gives a disproportionate impact to those wards. Not only that, candidates likely would come from those wards.”
  • “It won’t matter what north Minneapolis says… northeast Minneapolis, downtown, it won’t matter. The larger your districts, the whiter your candidates and outcomes…”

Lawyer seems not to be aware of the mountains of research and legal precedent showing at-large voting systems hurt people of color and renters

Tom Basting, defending the plan: “It does not take voice away from communities and people of color.”

Minneapolis voter sentiment trending away from at-large elections

The Minneapolis school board used to consist entirely of members elected at-large by citywide vote. This system was rejected by voters, and replaced with a hybrid district/at-large system in a 2008 referendum.

Why are there so many old white guys on the charter commission?

I spoke with one woman of color who was disturbed by this photo I tweeted (the one at the top of this post) of the charter commission.

Not to impugn the credentials of what I’m sure are some wonderful white guys… but we should find a way to have a Charter Commission that isn’t so alarmingly out of step with the city’s racial, gender, and age makeup. 🚨ESPECIALLY IF THEY HAVE THE POWER TO HELP RADICALLY ALTER OUR ELECTION SYSTEM.🚨

FYI: Commissioners are appointed by a district judge through an application process. (please apply! no white guys!)

What’s next?

Because of last minute revisions to the proposed charter amendment by its authors, the Charter Commission postponed a discussion to their April meeting. The commission would then make a decision about holding a future public hearing.

The process for approving an amendment to the city’s charter could involve either the Charter Commission bringing it forward, or a petition signed by roughly 10,356 Minneapolis voters (5% of the total ballots cast in 2018, if my math is correct) — with either process leading to a ballot referendum. Commissioner Matt Perry encouraged Basting to go the petition route.

Read more about the charter amendment process here.

Case Study: Ward 13 vs. Ward 5

Wards in Minneapolis have equal populations, but often very unequal numbers of ballots cast in city elections. Here are some numbers that demonstrate how eliminating a district-based system in favor of citywide seats dilutes the power of minority neighborhoods and redistributes that power to wealthier, whiter ones.

Ward 5 – 35,483 people
76% people of color
4278 ballots cast (2017)

Ward 13 – 35,910 people
88% white
11742 ballots cast (2017)

Again, Ward 5 has a population equal to Ward 13. But Ward 5 cast only 36% as many ballots in the last city election. Despite lacking the turnout power of wealthy white neighborhoods in south Minneapolis, even non-voters in north Minneapolis can count on being represented by city council members elected by the people of north Minneapolis.

This power would be taken away from north Minneapolis by shifting to at-large seats. It would be further exacerbated by going from from 13 wards to 6, resulting in larger districts. As the City Clerk explained, “The larger your districts, the whiter your candidates and outcomes… “

How the recently passed Mpls 2040 plan is motivating this charter amendment

A friend messaged me a few weeks ago saying they’d been told of a plan to eliminate a number of council wards and create at-large seats (the details in this rumor ended up matching exactly what was submitted to the city). This person characterized the plan as originating with a group of southwest Minneapolis residents resentful of the council’s new progressive majority led by City Council President Lisa Bender, who they blame for approving the 2040 long-range plan. (The plan was approved 12-1 — you definitely need to radically remake the electoral process in order to overcome a 12-1 deficit.)

Aside from having the same lawyer, another reason to suspect this is motivated by 2040 resentment is that the charter amendment singles out the Council President and the Council’s Planning Commission representative as positions that must be chosen from among the at-large members. President Bender is a target because she is the elected official most responsible for shepherding the 2040 plan over the last few years.

Basting, the anti-2040 lawyer, told the Charter Commission that the “inherent defect” in the current ward-based system is that council members only listen to voters in their own ward. He said citywide issues require citywide representation, not the narrow “fundamental parochialism” of a ward-based system.

In Basting’s argument, I hear distinct echoes of last year’s debate over the 2040 plan. I recall southwest residents showing up to outreach events hosted by other council members, sometimes at the encouragement of Ward 13 Council Member Linea Palmisano. And these people would always end up extremely unhappy that they weren’t the most important people in the room.

Other than Basting, we don’t know the names of the people behind this proposal. I would encourage them to come forward and take ownership. But make no mistake, this plan has been authored by a cohort of south Minneapolis residents who are trying to restore the power they lost in the 2017 election.

RELATED: Casey Carl stars in the Wedge LIVE original series: “The Clerk”