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.
The basic issue is that beliefs about national issues don't map well onto beliefs about local issues. The Progressives thought the solution to this was non-partisan local elections, and until recently I thought so, too, but the research indicates that the situation is even worse in non-partisan election cities. I always found the choice voting system used to elect the Cambridge, MA City Council to be pretty appealing and wonder if it would, in some ways, help bring about what non-partisan local elections were supposed to achieve.