Get access

The Context Matters: The Effects of Single-Member versus At-Large Districts on City Council Diversity


  • The authors would like to thank Zoltan Hajnal for the generous use of his data. They would also like to thank Chris Achen, Chuck Cameron, David Lewis, Doug Massey, Nolan McCarty, and Melody Rose for extremely helpful comments on drafts of the article, and Gretchen Kafoury for her very helpful advice on securing interviews with city council members. Benjamin Tagoe provided excellent research assistance.

Jessica Trounstine is assistant professor of politics and public affairs, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School, 303 Robertson Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544 ( Melody E. Valdini is assistant professor of political science, Portland State University, Division of Political Science, Hatfield School of Government, P.O. Box 751, Portland, OR 97207 (


Scholars continue to debate the degree to which electoral institutions matter for representation. The literature predicts that minorities benefit from districts while women benefit from at-large elections. The mechanisms by which institutions affect the ability of traditionally underrepresented groups to win seats have been understudied. Using an analysis of over 7,000 cities and interviews with city councilors, we find that compared to at-large systems, district systems can increase diversity only when underrepresented groups are highly concentrated and compose a substantial portion of the population. In addition, we find that the electoral system has a significant effect on representation only for African American male and white female councilors; the proportion of African American women and Latina councilors is not affected by the use of either district or at-large systems.