It’s difficult to measure the importance that representation plays in local politics, but it is possible to get an idea of how well groups within a population are represented by those elected to govern their community. In 2014, a project by the name of Who Leads Us, organized by the Women Donors Network, sought to better understand how the demographics of those holding elected office compare to the communities they represent. Looking at federal, state, and local leaders, Who Leads Us found that South Carolina ranked 42nd in representation out of all 50 states and Washington, D.C. According to a statewide survey, white men accounted for 31 percent of the population, but made up 57 percent of elected officials. But how do these numbers look on just the local level?
Looking at city councils in 20 of the largest municipalities in South Carolina — Columbia, Charleston, North Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, Rock Hill, Greenville, Summerville, Sumter, Hilton Head, Florence, Spartanburg, Goose Creek, Aiken, Myrtle Beach, Anderson, Greer, Greenwood, Mauldin, North Augusta, and Easley — the City Paper found that white men still make up approximately 60 percent of elected officials. But a closer look at how the populations of each community are represented is necessary to truly understand how the racial makeup of a population is reflected in local government. When comparing the demographics of city councils to their respective communities, African-Americans are evenly represented in at least half of the municipal councils examined. Four of the 20 largest municipalities in South Carolina lack any African-American officials on council.
The most striking discrepancy in local government representation comes when examining gender. Of the 154 possible council seats in these 20 cities, three-quarters are held by men, and although women account for most of the population, they only hold a majority on two of these councils.
So the question becomes how important is it that portions of a population be accurately represented by their leaders on a local level. Well, one major problem that could possibly be addressed by a more representative local government is the perception of bias among constituents. Zoltan Hajnal, a professor of political science at the University of California, has written extensively on issues surrounding municipal elections and has found that race is a major factor in a person’s level of satisfaction with their local government. According to Hajnal, African-American voters are significantly less likely to approve of their local government when compared to white constituents.
“Perceptions of racial inequality in local government responsiveness appear to be systematic. Blacks in most cities feel underserved by their local governments, and those perceptions appear to follow reality,” writes Hajnal.
Examining what factors may contribute to a more representative electorate, Hajnal found that voter turnout has the greatest impact on local elections. Communities with higher levels of voter turnout have much greater minority representation on councils, especially as it concerns Latinos and Asian Americans.
Dissecting the arguments for and against descriptive representation, political scientist Jane Mansbridge considers the claim that “it is impossible for men to represent women.” Dismissing this attitude, she points out that this belief would also imply that women cannot represent men. For Mansbridge, representation is less a matter of mandating quotas and more an issue of institutionalizing efforts to make political office more accessible for the entire community. Such steps include establishing scholarships for underrepresented groups, instituting public day care for elected officials, and placing caps nomination campaign expenses. Mansbridge suggests that these changes would not only contribute to reducing underrepresentation in local government, but also improve communication and confidence with voters.
“Easier communication with one’s representative, awareness of one’s interests are being represented with sensitivity, and knowledge that certain features of one’s identity do not mark one as less able to govern all contribute to making one feel more included in the polity,” Mansbridge writes. “This feeling of inclusion … makes the polity democratically more legitimate in one’s eyes.”