Under the U.S. constitution, states are the most powerful level of government. The constitution delegates all power not explicitly reserved in it to the states. In practice, the federal government has devised ways to coerce states, such as by withholding funding, and the Supreme Court has interpreted parts of the constitution like the commerce clause broadly, giving the federal government more and more power over time, beyond what the framers of the constitution likely intended. Nonetheless, state government remains very powerful. Most significantly, state government has complete power over cities – it is limited only by whatever constraints happen to be in that state’s constitution. Any policy at all enacted by the voters in a city can be overruled at the state level.
For example, states can, and have, decided to replace mayors.
In recent years, increased population clustering has resulted in less representation for urban communities due to the structure of state electoral systems. This is because state representatives are elected in single-member districts. Single member districts lend themselves to being gerrymandered. It’s fairly simple for the party in power to draw district boundaries in such a way that most districts are close, but tilt towards that party, and the remainder of districts heavily favor the opposing party. This effectively concentrates the opposing party’s voters and limits their ability to gain a majority in the legislature, even if an absolute majority of voters in the state were to vote for that party.
Because population clustering has occurred along ideological lines, this gerrymandering has to some extent happened automatically. By packing into fewer districts, one party’s voters have gerrymandered themselves out of power. This phenomenon can be seen at the national level, both in the most recent presidential race, where Hillary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump, but lost the electoral college (which functions similarly to a legislature made up of single member districts) and also in the Senate, where Democrats regularly get an absolute majority of votes nationally but don’t win a majority of seats.
In Minnesota, DFL candidates got more total votes than Republican candidates for the state senate in 2016, but won a minority of seats. In the house, Republican candidates got 50.34% of the popular vote, winning 57.14% of seats. Note that the share of votes cast for DFL vs. Republican candidates in 2012 and 2016 is almost the same – the four seats lost by the DFL in 2016 may have resulted from the geographic clustering of their voters.
The disenfranchisement of geographically clustered populations is an almost unavoidable outcome in legislative bodies composed of single member districts.
In the case of states, the preemption of progressive reforms in cities by Republican state legislatures has proliferated:
-In 1999, the Minnesota legislature banned cities from adopting residency requirements for police.
-The Tennessee state legislature recently preempted a trolley in Nashville.
-I recommend listening to this interview, covering various state preemptions including those in North Carolina.
Basically, cities are in a predicament. Citizens tend to be interested in progressive reform, but because they’re clustered, they’re disenfranchised at the state level. Reforms they implement locally can be overruled.
This article does an excellent job of laying out in detail the obstacles to progressive reforms under the current legal framework.
Unfortunately, the solution proposed doesn’t make sense. The author recommends advocating for state laws to be a “floor” which municipalities can then build on, but not go below. This might make sense in the case of a minimum wage, but most issues don’t fall along a linear spectrum in the same way – for most laws the concept of a floor would simply not apply, or would be too ambiguous to be legally coherent. This solution also doesn’t address the structural lack of power of dense communities under current state electoral practices.
The best and probably the only way to ensure self determination for cities is to make significant changes to the structure of state government. Fortunately, this is perfectly doable, and the mechanisms are already in place. I would propose two major changes to the Minnesota state constitution:
The citizens of Minnesota should adopt by statewide referendum an amendment to the constitution abolishing the state house and senate, and instead establishing a state parliament whose members are elected via proportional representation.
We should also adopt by statewide referendum an amendment to the state constitution designed to act as a framework for guaranteeing a degree of local autonomy. We would have to be careful to draft such an amendment carefully so that cities gain more autonomy in general, but are still subordinate to the state in some ways as well. I haven’t worked out the details, but it would probably end up being a pretty long amendment, which is a good thing – most constitutional democracies have much longer and more specific constitutions than the U.S., which provides more clarity and certainty in government and legal proceedings.
I know there are a lot of obstacles in the way of these reforms (not least that legislators will have to vote to allow a referendum that if successful, would mean that they would lose their seats) but if we want to gain democratic self-determination, the problem of the unfair exercise of state power has to be solved, and this is the only way I see of doing it.