This guest post was written by Ray La Raja, a professor of political science at UMass, and graduate student Wouter Van Erve.
Supporters of Town Meeting (TM) argue that it provides more democracy and better representation. We cast doubt on these claims, based on research and statistics in Amherst.
TM is more democratic only if you believe that the participation of 240 citizens counts more than participation of voters. Town Meeting government depresses turnout. In Amherst, average turnout from 2011 to 2016 has been 11 percent of registered voters (lower if one uses eligible voters). Across Massachusetts it is 21 percent for council governments. If Amherst switches to council elections, it can expect a similar turnout increase, which means roughly 3,800 additional voters would participate in elections. People participate more when they experience political campaigns, which engage them and encourage them to vote. Not so with discreet TM elections in which most voters have little or no familiarity with candidates.
An additional bonus of higher turnout is that the voters will be more reflective of the population. Our research shows that the small slice of residents who show up for TM elections mirrors the members of TM (older, homeowners, white, educated). One of us has written a dissertation that studies turnout in Massachusetts towns, which shows that electorates for councils are more representative of the entire town. Like any American election, it’s still not perfect, but much better than TM electorates.
In sum, the argument that Town Meeting creates more democratic participation is misleading. One could easily argue it creates less participation (especially for people who don’t look like Town Meeting members). We acknowledge there is a trade-off: do we want intense participation by the few? Or common participation by the many?
One key to choosing between this trade-off is to understand whether Town Meeting is more or less representative of the electorate that isn’t participating. At least TM might reflect the silent population that does not participate. Despite claims by supporters that TM is more representative of the town than other forms, our research suggests it is not. Political scientists like to distinguish between descriptive representation (officials looking like voters) and substantive representation (officials supporting policies preferred by voters). On both kinds of representation, TM has questionable outcomes.
We have addressed the highly skewed nature of descriptive representation in past commentary. We cite a few here: The median age of eligible voters in Amherst is 34; in TM it is 63. Home ownership among Amherst residents is 55%; in TM it is 91%. These differences can be meaningful because they often lead to substantively different policy choices. For example, TM members who voted against funding for building a new school tended to be older by several years and less likely to have children in the home.
Under a healthy democratic system, even if descriptive representation is not great, you should get decent substantive representation because your official should have an electoral incentive to represent your interests. This is especially true on salient issues like schools, which affect a large portion of the community. A majority of TM members voted against funding a new school even though a referendum showed a majority of voters approved it.
However, we are less concerned about the outcome of the school vote than whether TM members actually represented their precinct voters. On this score, we were troubled to see large discrepancies across precincts in how TM members voted and what voters in their districts preferred. In five out of 10 precincts the TM members voted substantially against voter preferences. The two most egregious cases involved Precincts 2 and 10. In Precinct 2, 49% of voters approved school funding, but a whopping 86% of TM members did so as well (a difference of 37 points). On the flip side, in Precinct 10, 53% of voters approved the funding, but only 19% of TM members approved it (a difference of 34 points).
You might ask, how well are TM members representing their constituents? It is certainly plausible to argue, like John F. Kennedy, that sometimes leaders need to make tough choices that put them at odds with their constituents. The leader, after all, has information and a broader perspective the voters may not. It would be a stretch, however, to say that TM members who went against their constituents were profiles in courage, even when acting on their understanding of the public interest. For this to be so, TM members who opposed the preferences of their constituents (assuming they knew what they were) had to fear losing the next election. That is not the reality of TM elections, since turnout is so low and the individual threat of losing a seat virtually nil.
As voters contemplate whether to support the charter reform, they should ask, compared to what? The strongest case that has been made for the TM status quo is that it is more participatory and more representative. This is a dubious claim. It is “participatory” if one is referring to the small slice of residents who are in TM and the 11% who vote for them. In reality, TM depresses broader participation, and the body itself is not representative of what Amherst voters look like. More critically, important policy decisions run the risk of not being representative of what residents want because there is no way to hold TM members accountable for decisions that reject voter preferences.
TM members should worry more about what voters think, including those they don’t know personally. That is unlikely to happen without genuine elections that come with a council system of government.
We believe a council government has many other benefits over TM, including greater transparency of public decision-making and a deliberative process that encourages compromise. Our purpose here was to illustrate that, properly understood, its participatory and representative functions are as good or better than Town Meeting.