The Memphis City Council’s districting system is unlike any other. Sure, other places have single member districts and more “at large” seats, Nashville comes to mind for instance, but few cities that faced the legal challenges that ultimately led to our current arrangement were given the latitude to basically write their own deal.
In 1988, the Dallas City Council’s districting plan was challenged. They tried to propose a mixed system featuring some single member districts and some at large districts, a Federal Judge ruled that such a plan would ultimately not serve the interest of proportionality. The city was ordered to adopt single member districts.
More recently, in Irving, TX a 2007 suit led to the changing of the districting system in a city whose hispanic population had been continuously disenfranchised for years.
And that’s the way it was in Memphis until 1991. African-Americans, while a large percentage of the population, only held 3 of the 13 seats on the City Council until that election. The difference, the end of run-offs in “at large” seats as a result of a lawsuit challenging the city’s districts.
In 1995, the City Council came up with a plan (on a 9-4 vote with Myron Lowery and Janet Hooks joining the majority), that was approved by Judge Jerome Turner as satisfactory to ensure adequate representation for African-Americans on the City Council. The measure passed, even though it was largely not understood, and as a result of the 1995 elections, the City Council, for the first time ever, became a majority minority body that reflected the demographics of a changing city.
Since that time, even though the City is now 70% African-American, this notion that the Consent Decree demanded a 7-6 split has been maintained even though it ultimately disenfranchises the African-American majority by denying them the 2 seats on the council that single member districts would likely return.
How does this happen? The super districts skew the math by artificially designating 3 members to a “white” district that’s really only 48% white. That would be “Super District” 9. By contrast, “Super District” 8 is over 85% African-American.
Now, take a look at this map from Polar Donkey:
The stars are where the members of the City Council live. Notice there are 4 members in district 5, 3 in district 7 (if you count former Councilwoman Ware), 2 in district 3 meaning that 69% of all the votes on the City Council are concentrated in just 43% of the city.
Now look, I’m not suggesting that members who represent district 9 but live in 5 don’t take calls from their constituents in other areas. However, the whole purpose of districts is for people to have a connection to them, and by having these districts that represent over 323,000 people and their representatives concentrated in one area of town it makes it harder for a member to truly understand the issues faced by folks who live outside of the Poplar corridor. That’s just reality. And of course, the same can be said of those who represent District 8, even though they are marginally more dispersed.
The real issue here is that this is the system we have, but not the system we have to have. I’ve made no secret about my disdain for this system. I haven’t liked it for years. Because our government is “by the people” we could change it if we wanted to, I just don’t think that many folks really think about this stuff enough to get to the “what change might look like” part of the discussion. Until that happens, it is what it is.
But the other reality is that the 7-6 split on the council is artificially maintained by this districting system, and it doesn’t take someone with a great grasp of math to figure it out. By stacking district 8 with such a huge percentage of the African American population, this system actually creates an impossible scenario for a majority of the population to actually receive proportional representation on the City Council, and no matter what anyone says, they can’t produce the math to show anything different.
Memphis suffers from a whole lot of problems, one of which is collective action. I hear a lot of noise in this city from folks who think things ought to be different, but I don’t see a lot of action. When I go to the City Council or the County Commission meetings the number of people in attendance is usually very small. There are more members of the administration there than members or regular citizens. That doesn’t bode well for a city with the kind of wide ranging challenges we have.
We have to demand better from everyone, and that includes people that might look like you no matter what you look like. Until we do that, we’ll get what we get. What we’re getting is a Council that, as a body, is reacting rather than leading. There are several examples of members who simply lack the curiosity needed to ask questions that could cause everyone, from the administration to other members, to think differently about how to arrive at solutions.
I get that it takes 7 members to get anything done, and I think that there are several member that possess these qualities…but there aren’t 7. Until there are, we’re stuck in the same mess we’ve been stuck in for longer than I’ve lived here.
In the end, it is the way it is because we allow it to be, either through inaction, of lack of information or just not giving a damn. If we don’t start thinking and talking about ways to change it, many of the issues facing this City will never be resolved…and that’s really sad to me.
No one can change our city alone…we have to start changing it together.