How Your Community Can Find the “Right” Representatives

Imagine if each member of your town or city council was personally responsible to a group of citizens who all shared his or her priorities for the community. Each council member would then have one practical way to advance the agenda that he and his constituents shared: He would have to negotiate creative deals with representatives for other camps. Each council member could then explain to his own constituents in convincing detail how these deals would advance their own cause.

If this scenario sounds too optimistic, consider other kinds of representatives, say a labor union representative struggling with a management spokesperson. In nearly every case, the two of them hammer out a deal that meets the top needs of both sides at a reasonable cost to both. They usually succeed where politicians often fail. How?

It's because both labor and management representatives start out confident that if they can put together a deal that makes sense to them, each will be able to sell it to his own camp. Each can say something like: "This contract isn’t exactly what we set out to get, but it’s better than our alternatives. Here’s how . . ." And since the people in each camp know that their spokesperson is on their side, they listen to him or her make his case.

Likewise, if each member of a town council knew that his or her constituents shared his political outlook, each council member could have some confidence that if he struck intelligent agreements on the important issues, most of his constituents would listen to him explain what he had done and why. A typical council member would thus be far more likely to work out intelligent agreements on the hard issues.

What, though, would it take to create this kind of relationship between each council member and his or her constituents?

The answer is easiest to see by shrinking the task down to a small scale. So suppose the residents of a very small community wanted to elect a town council that could resolve its most divisive problems. For that purpose, the whole town meets in a large hall. Each person who wants a seat on the council hands out copies of his or her platform. Each candidate then moves to a different point in the room. Next, everyone present gathers around their favorite candidate. The person running the meeting then turns to the candidate with the smallest group around him and says something like: “Joe, of the 18 candidates running for the seven council seats, you have the fewest backers. So I’m going to ask you to drop out of the race. Then, would you and each of the five people gathered around you please make a second choice.” When each of those six people get to their second choices, the moderator turns to the next candidate with the fewest backers and asks her to drop out. She and each of her supporters go to their next choices. This process continues until seven candidates are left to fill the seven council seats.

Each person in this town would thereby end up with a representative closer to him or her politically than under any other election method. Each council member would, in turn, know her constituents’ concerns better than representatives elected by other methods.

Once this council began to meet, what then? Any member who wanted to make progress on the issues that mattered to her constituents would have to negotiate with other members. Each one could then explain to her own voters how those deals would benefit them.

But what about council members who refused to budge from their initial positions, and therefore get little done? What then would happen at the next election when their voters would again have as many as 18 candidates to choose from? Several of those candidates would surely make a strong case that they could accomplish more than a council member who had proven to be inflexible.

Who, then, would most voters pick as their first choice: a council member who claimed that other members had blocked her from producing concrete results or candidates who spelled out how they would make progress on the major issues?

As we see it, that’s like asking: Would most workers prefer a union leader who provokes a strike or one who offers a credible plan for negotiating a good contract? Clearly, the latter. Likewise, if voters could genuinely choose their representative, most would pick someone who could produce solid results over someone who’d produced mostly angry rhetoric.

We are in effect predicting that, under this election method, a typical voter would hold his or her representative to account for his actions, which very few voters do now. However, voters would be in a very different situation than the one now. Most voters today can’t get a representative who shares their own values. So most voters lack a reason to keep track of their city council member.

With the above election method, though, a typical voter would obtain a representative who advocated causes the voter believed in. Most voters would therefore prefer a spokesperson who produced concrete results over one who just called his opponents derogatory names.

Still, to make this scenario a reality, we would need to translate the process of voters in a small town gathering around the candidates into a process that communities of any size could use. Here’s how that can be done:

1) If a town or city council has seven or fewer members, the community schedules an election in which all the candidates will compete for all council seats in one combined election. If a council has more than seven members, however, the community is divided into districts with several council members in each, at least four.

2) Candidates get on the ballot by winning a party’s nomination or by obtaining sufficient signatures on a petition.

3) The local election board circulates basic information about the candidates to registered voters.

4) On Election Day, each voter chooses which candidate is his or her first choice. Since that candidate may not garner enough votes to win a seat, each voter also needs to pick a second choice. And, in case that candidate doesn’t win a seat, the voter picks a third choice, and so on. To make all those choices, each voter gets what’s called a "preferential ballot." When filled out, it looks like this:

BALLOT FOR CITY COUNCIL

Please choose which of the candidates listed below is your first choice, and put a “1” in the box next to his or her name.

Then choose which candidate is your second choice, and put a “2” in the box next to his or her name.

For your third choice, put the number “3”. And so on. You may rank as many candidates as you like.

5) As in the small town, when the votes are counted, the candidate who drew the fewest first-choice votes is out of the running. All the votes for that candidate go to his voters’ second choices. Then, the next candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The votes for her go to her voters’ next choices. And so on. The lowest-drawing candidates are dropped one by one, until the number of candidates left equals the number of council seats.

6) Each council member then needs to establish a direct line of communication to his or her voters. For that purpose, the election board mails every voter a card that lists the election winners. Each voter is asked, but not required, to check off the name of the person they want to represent them and then mail the card to that winner. Each representative thereby receives her constituents’ names and addresses. She can then send them regular reports about her work on the council.

7) With these elections, though (steps 4 and 5), each council member would draw a different number of voters. So, each one's voting power on the council has to be proportional to the number of his or her voters. This feature, though unusual, is already in use in some communities.6

We call this entire process Personally Accountable Representation or PAR. Overall, PAR has the following advantages over other election methods:

  • Each voter gets a representative as politically close to him or herself as is practical.
  • Each citizen thus has the maximum incentive to scrutinize the candidates, to vote and then hold his representative to account for his actions.
  • Each council member knows his or her constituents’ political concerns better than under other methods.
  • Each council member knows that at the next election he or she will face multiple competitors for his seat.
  • Each council member thus feels substantial pressure to produce useful results.
  • Each council member therefore has a strong incentive to reach constructive agreements with opponents.
  • Each council member can then explain his or her decisions to constituents — in terms they can relate to.

PAR can be used to elect a town council, a school board or a planning board. To see if that's appropriate in your community, click here.

PAR can also be used to elect an ad hoc body of representatives that is asked to tackle one particularly controversial issue. To see how, click here.


6 Several local councils, such as the Livingston County Legislature in upstate New York, give each member voting power based on the number of his or her voters. This could even be done in the U.S. House of Representatives. That is, the Constitution says that each senator shall have one vote, but has no such restriction on representatives. Indeed, we believe the nation's founders would endorse this entire proposal. That is, they intended that each representative have a bond of some substance with his constituents. (See The Federalist, Nos. 51, 52, 56 and 57.) And to create that kind of bond in these times, elections would have to be modified along the lines described here.