Public Choice

, Volume 88, Issue 3–4, pp 275–293 | Cite as

Rethinking ward and at-large elections in cities: Total spending, the number of locations of selected city services, and policy types

  • Laura I. Langbein
  • Philip Crewson
  • Charles Niel Brasher


This study shows why the conventional wisdom that cities with ward elections will spend more than cities with at-large elections is too simple and explains why the empirical findings have been so mixed. Ward vs. at-large elections will only affect the policy choices of city councils when the policy choice is one that is decided by the median legislator. When the policy is one that is decided by the rule of universalism, the relevant institutional determinant of choice is the number of legislators, and not whether they are elected at-large or by wards. Universalism is politically rational for divisible policies that all constituents deisre (“pork”); the majority rule equilibrium (at the median) is more rational for divisible policies that are generally desired, but only when they are not located too close to any one constituent's home (“LULUs”). The expectation then is that larger city councils will provide more parks than smaller ones, and that election by wards or at-large will be irrelevant for these policy choices. By contrast, community centers and libraries are thought to be generally desireable, but not when they are in one's backyard. The size of the council is not predicted to be relevant for these decisions, but councils elected by wards are more likely to have a median legislator who represents geographically concentrated constituents, such as the minority poor; their preferences will have a bigger impact on councils elected by wards than on councils elected at large. Data from a sample of council-manager cities with weak mayors who have no veto uphold these hypotheses.


Public Finance Large City Empirical Finding Majority Rule Community Center 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laura I. Langbein
    • 1
  • Philip Crewson
    • 1
  • Charles Niel Brasher
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Public AffairsAmerican UniversityWashington
  2. 2.Department of Political ScienceMankato State UniversityMankato

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