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How democratic are local governments in the United States?

An analysis of county governments in the State of Maryland

Although Americans are more sharply divided along political lines than ever, most Americans agree on the bedrock principles of the American federal system, including the distribution of powers and responsibilities between federal, state and local governments; the separation of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government at each level (which provides important checks and balances); the need for professional (non-political) public administration; the notion of local self-government; and the principle of democratic representation.

Despite a shared commitment to representative democracy, federal and state governments seem to be increasingly captured by political and special interests—for instance, as a result of gerrymandering or the influence of money in politics—and increasingly fail to act as governments “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Most of the debate surrounding the decline of American democracy has focused on federal and state governments, while much less attention has been paid to the extent and nature of local democracy in the United States. This is the case even though local governments—as the government level closest to the people—form the foundation of American self-government and democracy.[1]

As a simple thought experiment and an entry-point into the discussion on local democracy in the United States, I reviewed the system of county governance in a state I know well–the State of Maryland—based on a number of basic indicators of democratic governance. I focus on county governments because they are the most universal type of local government in the United States and they are politically and administratively the most important local government level below the state. Five important findings stand out:

Finding 1: Counties are governed by a patchwork of governance practices

The State of Maryland has about 6 million residents and is divided into 23 counties plus the City of Baltimore, which holds county-level status per the state constitution. The state constitution further recognizes two types of counties: regular (“code”) counties and home-rule (“charter”) counties. In line with the principles of popular sovereignty and self-governance, each Maryland county can opt to become a charter county, allowing it to define its own charter and come up with its own governance structure, thus creating a patchwork of local governance practices.[2]

Finding 2: County governments generally lack separation-of-powers and checks-and-balances

The constitutional principles of separation of powers and checks and balances—which requires directly electing a legislature as well as an executive officer—are a standard element of the republican form of government as practiced at the federal level and in each of the fifty states. However, at the county level, these democratic principles are generally abandoned. In fact, residents in only 9 out of 24 counties in Maryland are given the opportunity to elect their County Executive. In all other counties, the Board of County Commissioners functions simultaneously as the executive power as well as the highest decision-making body in the county, thus preventing a system of checks-and-balances from arising.

Finding 3: County Boards are small, limiting debate and reducing the voice of the average citizen

In all but a few counties, Maryland voters get to elect at least 8 county-level officials every four years. While this seems very democratic, in practice the majority of these elections are for administrative positions (such as the Register of Wills, County Treasurer, and Circuit Court Clerk) rather than for the County Board of Commissioners, which is the ultimate decision-making body of the county. For instance, the County Board decides on county taxes, prepares and approves the county budget, and appoints the County Administrator who runs the county government apparatus.

The typical County Board of Commissioners in Maryland has only five members, while the average County Board in the state has 5.9 members. This means that county decisions—affecting the lives of a quarter million residents, on average—can be made by a board majority of three individuals.

As a result of the small board size, an average citizen has little or no voice on the County Board as—on average—the interests of a whopping 42,000 local residents are represented by a single County Commissioner.  The small size of the County Board thus prevents the board from meaningfully representing the diversity of opinions and interests of the county’s constituents.

On average, elected county board members in the United States represent 18,700 constituents. Although this results in twice the amount of “voice” for the average U.S. resident when compared to Maryland residents, this still reflects an extremely limited level of democratic representation when compared to other countries.

For instance, the average county council in the United Kingdom has 42 members. This means that each county councilor in the UK represents only 7,100 residents, allowing for much greater meaningful participation, and allowing for much greater interaction between the county council and local residents.

Finding 4: Counties are allowed to use unrepresentative electoral systems

A basic principle of local representative democracy is that local elections should result in the selection of local representatives that reflect the preferences of the local community. For instance, if 60 percent of local voters prefer the positions of the Blue Party and 40 percent of the voters prefer the positions of the Red Party, then we would expect 3 out of the 5 elected county board members to belong to the Blue Party, while 2 out of the 5 elected members ought to belong to be Red Party. Most Americans—regardless of political leaning—would consider an electoral system to be patently unfair and undemocratic if the above voter preferences resulted in the election of 5 county board members all belonging to the Blue Party.

However, this is exactly how elections in 11 Maryland counties are structured. State law permits charter counties to replace the district-based election of county commissioners with so-called “at-large” county elections which allows 51% of county voters to pick 100% of a county’s elected representatives. Instead of moving democratic institutions towards dialogue and compromise, at-large election of county commissioners amplifies local political divisions and artificially creates “red counties” and “blue counties” where voters who are not in the majority have no political representation.

Finding 5: Voter representation may be worse at the local level than at the state and federal level

Although it is hard to measure how representative the views of an elected body are of the underlying population, gender and race are often looked at as indicators of representativeness. For instance, we know that while roughly 50 percent of residents in Maryland are women, only 32 percent of state legislators are women. However, a review of county election data in Maryland suggests that fewer than 15 percent of County Commissioners in Maryland are women. This raises the concern that unrepresentative county election structures may indeed result in weaker representation at the county level than at the state level, even though the county level is much closer to the people than the state level.

The main take-aways from this brief review give reason for serious concern, not only for the limited democratic nature of county governments in the State of Maryland, but in fact—to the extent that the uncovered practices are common across the country—for the nature and extent of local democracy in the United States as a whole.

However, there is also reason for hope. Whereas constitutional provisions and entrenched political interests form a formidable obstacle to improving democratic representation at the federal and state levels, there are fewer obstacles to reform at the local level. As such, targeted collective action at the state and local level should be able to readily achieve an improvement in the representative nature of local democratic institutions across the country.

 

 

[1] To the extent that local governance has been considered in the national debate surrounding representative democracy, the focus seems to have been on state preemption of local democratic power. However, as noted below, local democratic systems in the U.S. seem to have much more structural shortcomings.

[2] As noted further below, however, many charter counties have used their privilege of self-governance to introduce highly unrepresentative electoral systems.