Chris Bradford over at Austin Contrarian – the inspiration for this humble blog – argues that SMDs will institutionalize planning and zoning parochialism:
Council members whose districts will not be affected directly will have an incentive to defer to the affected Council member; they will want and expect that deference to be reciprocated. That is the genesis of ward courtesy…In a ward courtesy system, you only need one vote for zoning changes as a practical matter. “
This is certainly true if a single-member district’s active median voter is indifferent to a specific zoning or planning policy. But if the median voter for a SMD representative (representative “A”) has a strong policy preference that disagrees with the SMD representative where the development will occur (representative “B”), then rep “A” can potentially disregard their median voter’s preferences – but said representative will be out-of-step with the district and exposed to an electoral loss.
In order for the ward courtesy assertion to be true, there could never be a situation where the constituents for rep “A” and rep “B” strongly disagree. If there is a disagreement, then the tit-for-tat scheme breaks down.
Let’s look at a particular case that is of high interest to both Chris and me: making the city center more dense. Under ward courtesy, density would stay at the status quo trajectory because the new SMD representatives outside the center city would not represent the median voter in their district (in the event they have a policy preference) and instead establish a tit-for-tat with other legislators.
While it is certainly possible that on many minor zoning and planning issues an SMD representative’s constituents will be essentially indifferent, it seems that in several of the new districts the newly empowered median voters would have strong preferences about packing density into the center city on either affordability (boost supply) or environmental grounds (reduce transit footprint). A ‘strong’ version of the ward courtesy hypothesis just seems too deterministic and statistically implausible. For example, look at how many 4-3 votes there are on recent Austin City Councils – and these folks are elected by essentially the same voter universe!
It just seems highly unlikely that the new set of SMD median voters (and whatever policy entrepreneurs they unleash) will be utterly homogenous in their indifference to planning and zoning to the point that a perpetual tit-for-tat amongst legislators is possible.
Ward courtesy also contradicts available academic research. In this Public Choice essay – which I cited in my previous blog post on empirical research on SMDs – the researchers found that for locally-undesirable land uses, the median legislator’s local constituents’ preferences are what matter. I have yet to find any empirical research supporting a ‘ward courtesy’ finding, though I’d be glad to review and blog about anything readers might send my way.
It is totally possible that the new median voters will desire atrocious policies in some cases – I’d bet that supportive housing discourse from SMD reps is going to be more parochial and tough site decisions will have even more disgruntled voices represented at the council level.
But that’s not what a ‘ward courtesy’ system empowered by voter indifference looks like. The broader, messier discourse empowered by lower barriers to entry and a new set of median voters (instead of just the one of the status quo) is precisely the egalitarian disruption proponents are hoping for.
If one is interested in a truly greener, higher density center city, then a new set of low- barrier-to-entry districts with diverse median voters is likely to be the path with more upside for the issue than sticking with the current high-cost citywide-district with a pretty static median voter.