CHARLOTTE — When asked if I have lived in Charlotte my whole life, I respond “Not yet.” Actually, I moved out of the city about a decade ago, but I still live in Mecklenburg County. I still work in Charlotte, and I follow local politics more closely than most.
“Ward Politics” has a pejorative aura, for good reason. It connotes inefficiency at best, and corruption at worst.
The City of Charlotte had a history of electing city council members by wards into the 1920s. The old sections of downtown Charlotte are still known as First Ward, Second Ward, Third Ward, and Fourth Ward. In response to proof of corruption and waste, Charlotte abandoned elections by ward and went to at-large City Council elections close to a hundred years ago. Every registered voter had the opportunity to vote for every council member, and every member represented all voters. After all, each council member had an equal say on issues before them, such as public safety, spending, and most important, taxation.
The at-large system worked well until the late 1970s. Liberal pressure groups proposed elections by wards, calling them “districts” to minimize the negative connotations. As so often has been the case for liberal causes, the Charlotte Observer led the charge in favor of districts, promoting them as somehow being closer to the concerns of the citizenry.
District elections passed into law, but barely. As a result, which we have today, the City Council has 11 members, four at-large, seven elected by districts, by only the respective voters in their districts.
Do the math: Charlotte taxpayers can vote for only a minority (five of the 11 members of City Council), even though each member of the council has an equal vote. Members of the council care not whether you, the voter, approve of the member’s votes unless you live in the member’s district, because you have no opportunity to vote that member out. So a majority of council members can ignore you.
The results over the last several decades have been predictable, if not inevitable. Projects are funded without good reason, too numerous to mention. Examples include a downtown retail center, City Fair, which failed after a few years. There is a trolley built and being tested right now, a technology that Charlotte abandoned in the 1930s because it was obsolete even then. A coliseum only 13 years old was torn down to build one with thousands of fewer seats.
Just on June 22, the City Council voted 7-4 to spend many millions more on another trolley line, of only a mile and a half. Millions have been spent in trolley construction, and millions more will represent a perpetual liability for operations and maintenance. The trolleys also have unsightly overhead electrical lines and will block auto traffic. When traffic patterns change, their routes cannot change without laying new tracks.
The billionaire owners of the Panthers NFL team were given $87 million dollars for their stadium upgrades this past year, to be paid for in part by middle-class taxpayers who cannot afford to attend a game. Charlotte has agreed to fund over $20 million in arena upgrades for the billionaire owner of the NBA team in Charlotte. These are only some examples—other examples are legion.
Public corruption was a reason Charlotte City Council abandoned ward politics. Now it is back. Last year our mayor went to federal prison for accepting bribes.
At the time that at-large elections were abandoned, the city had a generous representation of Republicans on the City Council. In the decades since, conservative and moderate voters have voted with their feet, moving, among other places, to the seven counties that are contiguous to Mecklenburg County.
Those counties are represented pretty much exclusively by Republicans in the offices that are elected on a partisan basis. If people there want to visit Charlotte for jobs, dining, arts, and sports, they have only a short drive if they live in surrounding areas. Instead of competitive races and responsiveness to voters, most district members of City Council run unopposed. Those who have competition need only survive their party primary.
Exercising the voting franchise has a bizarre result in Charlotte. It typically takes more than twice as many votes to win the District 7 City Council seat, which pays a disproportionately high percentage of the taxes, than to be elected from District 1 or District 2. You and your District 7 neighbors vote, and your vote is diluted relative to the voters in the lower taxed districts. You and your neighbors exercise your civic duty of voting, for which you are punished.
The City Council now has nine Democrats and two Republicans, and it will not get better. Charlotte has seen its last Republican mayor.
Phil Van Hoy grew up in Charlotte and attended Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools. After graduating from law school, he served a short period of active duty as an Army officer. He went on to practice employment law as an attorney in the Duke Power legal department and in private law firms before co-founding Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams and Dunn in 1989. The firm specializes in employment law and litigation, representing employers and executives.