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.
I was just thinking this morning about how, at present, outstate legislators are trying to gut transit and do other harmful things to cities, so I think this idea is good. But my question is this: is this more or less likely to happen than Nicholas Cage stealing the Declaration of Independence?
If I had asked you 4 years ago if Donald Trump was likely to become president…
Very different scenario, but it illustrates a volatility and appetite for change in the electorate. I think these amendments would pass, but the hard part will be getting them on the ballot.
A majority of Minnesotans of both major parties favor local autonomy.
Cities lack autonomy because they are literally creations of state law – they are “incorporated” not unlike a, um, corporation. They are not themselves sovereign. I’m not even sure they could be under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the federal constitution (for example, cities and other municipalities are not treated the same as state for purposes of the State Action Doctrine, an exception to the application of federal antitrust law). One could certain read a negative implication of the 10th Amendment as being power belonging either to the people or the states, but not to any other entity. (But then, can’t the people use their power to empower cities??)
Which leads me who whether a proportional parliament would be constitutional as well. The Court has held that state legislative districts have to be of roughly equal population (which is why we have house districts that are half of senate districts rather than one body that isn’t proportionate). Would a parliamentary system work too? Maybe.
Anyway, interesting idea.
I’m not a lawyer, but as I understand it the amount of autonomy for cities varies from state to state, with some states being so-called home rule states and others not. What I’m looking for is not cities to be sovereign so to speak, but just to raise the bar for state intervention. Minnesota is a home rule state, so cities can pass their own laws – however, the state legislature can preempt or immediately overturn those laws. I would like to see a situation where that’s more difficult. Maybe a supermajority of the legislature (or parliament), or another constitutional amendment would be required.
As for the state parliament, if the entire state is one legislative district, the point is moot right?
I like more local control but disagree strongly with state-level parliaments because I want someone who lives in the same general area representing me. Not every issue is partisan. We need legislators looking out for the specific interests of the communities they represent, not trying to stay in the good graces of state party leadership so they can move up the ranks. In a strictly parliamentary system, that wouldn’t necessarily happen.
Something like FairVote’s Fair Representation Act would be a good hybrid. That plan — which is envisioned for the congressional level but would still work for state government — has much larger districts but multi-seat representation within those districts. If you were to do it on the state level, for example, you might combine four house districts into a single district represented by four seats selected through ranked choice voting. This would effectively lead to near-proportional representation because the strongest minority candidate will often get a higher ranking than at least one of the weakest majority candidates. It also encourages more third-party participation. You can read more about it here: http://www.fairvote.org/fair_rep_in_congress#fair_rep_act
The Fairvote proposal would be a good compromise. I would vote for that if it was on the ballot. Although I would imagine that in a strict statewide parliament, if an issue specific to one area became very important, there would be a large enough constituency voting on that issue to elect members to parliament to represent their interests, just like in the current system.
I like this idea, but it’s also worth pointing out that the Senate and Electoral College results are simply because our current system does not actually weight each vote the same.
Prportional representation is a seperate issue from having a parliament as opposed to a presidential system. (Even though our “president” is called a governor, it’s still a presidential system.)
The good thing about a parliament is: no gridlock, since the leader of the majority party is the prime minister.
The bad thing about a parliament is: no gridlock. The majority party can always force its way. The legislative branch is legally superior to the executive and judicial branches.
I have more good things to say about proportional representation than parliaments.
Two methods of PR I endorse:
1. Mixed member PR, where half the legislature is elected by districts and half at large by List PR, or
2. Lottery (sortition) for the lower house (in Minnesota, the House of Representatives) and keep the upper house (the Senate) and executive branch as it is.
I agree with your thesis, but conflating parliaments with proportional representation is not an apt comparison. Canada and the UK have parliaments that elect members on a first-past-the-post basis. The key difference in using the term “parliament” is that the majority in the parliament is the Head of State, thus the largest party or coalition of parties elects the executive, not by direct vote.
Ergo, I wouldn’t propagate that Minnesota adopt a parliament. I do, very much so, like your proposal to campaign for amendments to the state constitution to make significant changes in our representation structure. While everyone on this comments thread probably has a concept on how to enact progressive urban policies through legal and constitutional means, I would say that we could abolish the bicameral and redundant nature of the Minnesota Legislature and combine both houses into a single body, with each former Senate District possessing three representatives, who could be elected by plurality-at-large or, better yet, instant run-off voting. This is how the ‘parliaments’ in Ireland work.