SADOW: Bossier City At-Large System Not Broken And Doesn’t Need Fixing

There’s no good reason for Bossier City to change its present City Council district arrangement of five single-member and two at-large districts.

Months ago, the Bossier City/Parish NAACP chapter began a campaign to initiate a charter change that would create seven single-member districts. Under this organization, demographics and reapportionment principles suggest that two minority – black – candidates could win Council seats, whereas under the current organization with a single majority-minority district historically only that district has elected a black councilor. According to the 2020 census, Bossier City has a black proportion of the population of 31 percent.

(Although not necessarily would a seven single-member district system elect two blacks, assuming blacks almost universally would vote for a black candidate. Demographer and Louisiana State University Shreveport history Prof. Gary Joiner in his plan along those lines presented to the Council couldn’t carve out two M/M districts. The best he could do was one district 58 percent black and another 46 percent black, 30 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, and the remainder other or mixed races.)

At present, the city charter that governs council districts would need amending to alter the current setup. The Council would have to vote to convene a charter commission that would have to conclude sending such a measure to the people, presumably in advance of the next 2025 Council elections to take effect then.

The justification, as stated by its advocates, is that under the current system “at-large elections guarantee that the votes of Black residents will be drowned out by the votes of the city’s white majority.” Such a view, of course, automatically and erroneously assumes the interests of such voter blocs necessarily must diverge, that black voters don’t have influence in elections, and, from this perspective, doesn’t even make sense in the context of council elections.

There is an easy formula for any black candidate to win an election in any jurisdiction regardless of its particular ethnic composition: articulate issue preferences that appeal to a majority of voters. It works in many contexts, with the most visible being in the U.S. Congress with examples such as South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (a state with 25 percent black population), Utah Rep. Burgess Owens (a district with 2 percent black population), and Florida Rep. Byron Donalds (7 percent black), all Republicans.

Even where non-blacks win elections, blacks can prove crucial in electing those politicians when a majority of it backs a candidate. Such was the case in New Orleans last decade when Democrat Mitch Landrieu won two terms as mayor even against other noteworthy black candidates, and although black voters only comprise an eighth of the total national electorate their near-lockstep voting for Democrat Pres. Joe Biden ensured his narrow victory in 2020. Many other examples abound where jurisdictions with large black voting segments, but not always majorities, in large part coalesce around a non-white candidate to carry that politician to victory. Not electing a black candidate doesn’t necessarily mean votes of black residents don’t elect their candidate of choice, much less influence the outcome of the contest.

Finally, if not having a majority black voice representing a jurisdiction – meaning in the context of a single-member district the election of a black – denotes failure to translate the will of black voters, then in the context of the entire Bossier City Council regardless of the current system that historically has produced one black councilor or an all-single member system that could produce two, that still makes blacks representation on the Council a significant minority and not even enough to present mayoral veto overrides. Using the internal logic of the special interest’s view, changing the system that would elevate the chances of electing more black councilors still would result in a “drowning out” of blacks votes.

And even the contention that at-large elections by their nature must make racial minority votes where they don’t comprise the majority count for nothing doesn’t hold up in the real world. Slidell, with a population a little under half of Bossier City, reelected this spring as one of its two at-large councilors black Democrat Glynn Pinchon, in a city with 24 percent black population.

Yet the best reason not to change the arrangement is it works without controversy, as it does in a number of other jurisdictions. Many small municipalities in Louisiana have all at-large seats in their councils, and other cities (5,000+ people) with some at-large seats besides Bossier City and Slidell range from DeRidder to Kenner (about Bossier City’s size). And the theoretical case for having at-large members is that they can govern with a city-wide view in mind not constrained by district-level politics, inducing this input into council decisions before they reach the desk of the city-side executive.

It’s not broken, it doesn’t need fixing. Councilors at their Jun. 15 meeting should reject calling for a commission and instead pass the appropriate ordinance reapportioning for the current representational arrangement.

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