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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Does Ferguson show that Fischel's Homevoter Hypothesis undermines minority power?

One of the oddest aspects of the racial strife in Ferguson, MO is that the state government is providing more racially representative leadership than the municipality. Although Ferguson's population is two-thirds black, its municipal leadership is overwhelmingly white. The (black) chief of the state highway patrol turns out to enjoy more popularity with Ferguson's own (white) municipal police chief.

The idea that state government would protect the interests of a local majority of African-American residents from their own municipal government seems bizarre in light of Southern history. Southern white supremacists seeking to "redeem" government from black power during the 1890s and early 1900s stripped municipalities of power, concentrating decision-making at the state level, in order to prevent local majorities of black voters from controlling taxation of real property. (For a description of the white supremacists' "general hostility to home rule" in Alabama, see Knight v. Alabama, 458 F.Supp.2d 1273, 1284-85 (N.D.Ala.2004)). Moreover, the research of the late Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues in Indiana U.'s Workshop on Political Theory from the early 1970s suggested that black voters in small municipalities within St. Louis County trust their police forces more than black residents in the central city.

Why, then, has not Ferguson's local voters taken control of their own municipal government, electing a mayor and council that creates a police force that the majority can trust? The question has relevance beyond Ferguson's particular situation: The whole point of jurisdictional fragmentation of counties among many small local governments is to give voice to groups that otherwise would be drowned out at the county and state level. If small local governments like Ferguson cannot represent the preferences of two-thirds of their residents, then what good are they? At least one commentator has used Ferguson as a fable of the follies of local decentralization. To academics for myself who have a fondness for decentralization as a vehicle for protecting local voters' power, Ferguson presents a troubling data point. Is there any explanation for how localism seems to have gone awry in Ferguson?

1. Does Ferguson's districting system dilute black power?
Ferguson's city council is elected through three wards, each of which elect two at-large council members. At-large districts, of course, can be used to dilute the votes of a local minority by increasing the vote threshold necessary to win a seat. But black voters are a local majority: It is not obvious to me how at-large districting would strengthen the hand of white voters.

2. Does homevoter control undermine black power? It is a familiar point from William Fischel's Homevoter Hypothesis that homeowners are more likely to vote, because they have a powerful interest in protecting their down payments from misspent taxes or inefficient regulatory decisions. Anecdotal evidence from Ferguson suggests that the disproportionate representation of whites in Ferguson's city government might be the result of black voters' disproportionately being renters rather than owners.. Ferguson's disproportionately black renters are harder to mobilize for low-salience municipal elections. Both black and white politicians in Ferguson seem to agree that the transience of Ferguson's renting population contributes to their lack of political participation.

The paucity of blacks among homevoters presents a dilemma for advocates of robust municipal power. On one hand, Fischel makes a strong case that the quality of local decision-making improves when constituents have strong ties to the local government. (The Ferguson protestors' attribution of looting to "outsiders" suggests a version of this "local stakes" theory of constituent interest). On the other hand, the price of homevoters' attentiveness is submersion of younger renters' interests in city government.

The problem of promoting the power of racial minorities through local autonomy, in short, seems to face some intractable obstacles. But, being perhaps sentimentally attached to localism, I am open to any thoughts on why local democracy seems to have failed in Ferguson and whether this failure can be remedied without throwing out the local autonomy baby with the bathwater of racially unresponsive local politics.

Posted by Rick Hills on August 17, 2014 at 08:00 AM | Permalink


Hi Sam! Yes, fragmentation of governments in St. Louis County could be a problem -- but it is also the solution. And that's the paradox that leaves Tiebout-Fischel fans (like myself) feeling a bit queasy about Ferguson. The problem is that a high density of taxing jurisdictions is necessary to make Tiebout-Fischel work: Local regulatory and taxing decisions cannot be capitalized into the value of homes unless citizen-consumers can choose between jurisdictions based on those governmental decisions rather than, say, the quality of employment. An important assumption of the Tiebout hypothesis is that employment is irrelevant because the supply of local governments is sufficiently elastic that anyone can choose any job within the relevant commuter shed and still pick a jurisdiction based on local public goods. (Tiebout actually modeled this assumption by assuming that there was an infinite supply of local governments and that citizen-consumers lived off of investment income!)

So St. Louis' high density of local governments is, from a Fischel-Tiebout point of view, a GOOD thing. But, as you point out, it also is a bad thing to the extent that it undermines renter voice.

Incidentally, Tiebout's last article (with Vincent Ostrom and Robert Warren praised Los Angeles County, dense with so-called "lakewood Plan" cities, as a good example of a "polycentric" system of government in which competition would make the county responsive to citizen demands. (See http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CB8QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Flocalgov.fsu.edu%2Freadings_papers%2FService%2520Delivery%2FOstrom_Tiebout_Warren_The_Organization_of_Government.pdf&ei=0-3wU9iVEZX_yQT82YGwDA&usg=AFQjCNGcOqXaBkA9QIE2xjAZ5fyCeeZj6A&sig2=DDQteUil2gzgG9kCpMNtiw&bvm=bv.73231344,d.aWw). But LA County is at least as fragmented as St. Louis County and suffers from the same interjurisdictional mobility that is said to reduce black turnout in North St. Louis.

All of which suggests the obvious, I guess -- that the benefits of the homevoter hypothesis will flow to black residents only to the extent that they are homeowners.

And I agree with Charles Hoffman's point about the cognitive costs of many off-year elections. Note, however, that Fischel would argue that low turnout does not matter when neighbors share home-ownership stakes in the neighborhood, because everyone is a proxy for everyone else: a few voters virtually represent everyone. The problem in Ferguson is the division between the homevoters and the residents of apartment complexes -- where the latter, unfortunately for the goal of racial equality, happen to be disproportionately black.

Of course, if those apartment dwellers start voting in large numbers such that voting patterns "catch up" with demographics, as suggested by DiFranco, then the problem evaporates. Here's hoping....

Posted by: Rick Hills | Aug 17, 2014 2:24:37 PM

I believe Ferguson's demographics have shifted from something like 67% white to 67% black in just the last 20 years, a rapid shift. It may simply be a case of voting patterns not catching up yet with the rapid demographic changes in the area.

Posted by: Anony DiFranco | Aug 17, 2014 11:30:01 AM

Isn't part of the problem the large number of municipalities in a relatively small area? If a renter in Ferguson moves a relatively short distance away, that renter is no longer in Ferguson but hasn't left the North County community. A person who moves relatively frequently within North County may not see the stakes in representation within one of the many cities and towns through which that person cycles, but may well see the stakes in representation by the county, state, or federal government.

Posted by: Sam Bagenstos | Aug 17, 2014 9:53:50 AM

I suspect we are also seeing the effect of what I refer to as the "too many elections" problem. Unlike most countries, voters in the United States are faced with far, far more elections (or, at least, choices at a given election) than voters in most other countries. Unfortunately, when asked to elect more than a handful of people, the vast majority of voters simply tune out, and either do not participate or vote in an entirely uninformed manner (whether that be voting by strict party line or more creative solutions like "I always vote for the woman", etc.). Then, once people are in office, since practically everyone has an electoral mandate, no one can be fired for gross incompetence, and someone else can always be blamed for problems that arise.

It's even worse when the low-information elections (basically anything below state elections) occur in off years or other times when people aren't used to voting. A quick google search didn't tell me precisely when the Feguson elections take place, but I did find out that most Missouri municipal elections occur in April, usually in off-years - basically the time of the year when most people are least thinking about voting. Add Ina requirement to register to vote thirty-plus days in advance, and you end up with an infinitesimal electorate made up predominantly of older voters who haven't moved in years.

Posted by: Charles Paul Hoffman | Aug 17, 2014 9:50:45 AM

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