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The current size of the Los Angeles City Council was established nearly a century ago, when Angelenos approved the 1924 Charter. At the time, each of the 15 Councilmembers represented on average a little more than 38,000 residents; as of the 1920 census the population of the City of Los Angeles was approximately 577,000. A century later, the City has grown to over 3.9 million residents, with each Councilmember now representing on average 265,000 Angelenos.
With 15 Councilmembers representing California's largest city,
the ratio of one city Councilmember to over a quarter of a million city residents is the largest in the nation.
In a different light, at the current ratio the 1924 residents of Los Angeles would have only have 2 or 3 City Councilmembers!
LOS ANGELES IN COMPARISON
TO OTHER CITIES
The following table compares the population of the City of Los Angeles with the ten largest cities in the nation, and was provided by the CLA in their March Report. We have added the cities of San Francisco and Long Beach to provide additional context local to California. The population provided is based on the 2020 census results for the respective cities, and divided by the number of total council representatives for Residents Per Elected Official.
Each Los Angeles City Councilmember currently represents an average of almost 265,000 individuals, the greatest such ratio of any city in the United States. By contrast, a New York City councilmember represents about 173,00 people while a Chicago alderman represents only about 55,000 people.
Notably, the cities of Philadelphia and Houston utilize a mix of single-member and at-large districts. This means that 10 or 11 of their city council representatives, respectively, are elected from distinct districts - as we currently do in Los Angeles - while the remainder are elected by and represent their entire city as a whole. We will take a more detailed look into at-large districts later on.
A similar figure was provided in the Report of the Chief Legislative Analyst (CLA) from March 10th. The CLA calculates the Average Residents per Elected Official in the Ten Largest US cities (excluding Los Angeles) at 128,761. That figure is slightly higher than the 117,288 in our table above, due to our inclusion of the additional California cities of San Francisco and Long Beach. A more complete table including the 20 largest cities in the United States is provided at the bottom of this page.
HOW MANY SEATS
IN CITY HALL?
There are two potential ways that City Council Expansion could be written into the charter: by setting a specific new size, or by tying the number of representatives directly to the population of the city - meaning that as the City grows, additional representatives would automatically be added at certain thresholds. In either case, the desired ratio of councilmembers to residents will be vital to the determination of a council size and the success of local governance, particularly as the City in all likelihood continues to grow in the future. As estimated by the Southern California Association of Governments, the City of Los Angeles will grow to a population of 4,310,000 by 2030. This estimate is used in the table below to approximate the future ratio of Councilmembers to Angelenos at various council sizes.
CLA's Large City Average
Representativeness Equivalent to:
Houston & San Antonio
The current Charter does not provide a tie-breaking mechanism for an even number of Councilmembers, so for simplicity we have only provided the math for an odd number of total representatives.
It is important to note that with Council Expansion leading to 19 seats or less, Angelenos would still live in the least represented large city in the nation.
At 21 Councilmembers, we would barely surpass Phoenix to become the second least represented large city.
The 2021 Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Committee itself recommends City Council Expansion. In Appendix M to the Commission's Final Report and Recommendations, Commisioner Sonja F. M. Diaz provides additional context on expansion, recommending adding at least 7 seats to City Council, for a total of 22.
Only at 23 councilmembers would the ratio of Los Angeles Councilmembers to residents be on par with that of New York, as the two largest cities in the US.
The City of Los Angeles currently elects Councilmembers from 15 single-member districts, and potential City Council expansion could be as simple as increasing the number of these districts. Dividing the 469 square miles of the City, the placement of these geographical districts directly affects which communities and residents are represented by each Councilmember. Drawing the lines to divide the City into distinct districts that are roughly equal in population while maintaining the cohesion of local communities is a difficult task! You'll be able to try drawing your own district lines using Dave's Redistricting later on.
For now, on the right is a map of the current 15 Council Districts, approved by the LA City Council late 2021.
MAP OF THE 99 LOS ANGELES
MAP OF THE 114 LOS ANGELES
Each of these neighborhoods and Neighborhood Councils represents a close-knit community with a shared identity and collective interests. During redistricting, keeping such communities of interest whole within a single district allows individuals to effectively organize around local concerns, as well as ensures cohesive voting power in electing representatives responsive to that community. Selecting an appropriate number of districts for Los Angeles will involve balancing the number of distinct communities of interest represented within each, while minimizing the number of neighborhoods that have to be split into different districts to maintain their roughly equal populations.
2021 REDISTRICTING COMMISSION REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
For additional information on the Report and Recommendations of the Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission 2021, check out our brief summary - which includes a downloadable copy of the full report.
Tasked with redistricting the City of Los Angeles following the 2020 census, even the 2021 Redistricting Commission itself recommends expanding City Council and utilizing an Independent Redistricting Commission in the future. In Appendix M of the Report and Recommendations, Commissioner Sonja F. M. Diaz provides additional context behind the Commission's recommendation for City Council Expansion. Commissioner Diaz compares the average population of a city neighborhood or Neighborhood Council to that of a City Council District; with Neighborhood Councils serving nearly 40,000 residents and with neighborhoods home to roughly 34,000 individuals, the ratio of residents to City Councils is 6.5x larger than the ratio of residents to neighborhood councils and 7.6x larger than the ratio of residents to neighborhoods. As a result, the framework of only 15 Council Districts constricts the City's large number of communities of interest and complicates the creation of compact, contiguous, and responsive districts. The following are a few brief excerpts from this Appendix:
The City’s diverse geographic, demographic, and social landscapes are poorly served by the current size of the City Council. Here, the redistricting process must navigate natural boundaries like the Pacific Ocean, islands of unincorporated Los Angeles County neighborhoods and whole cities like Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, and land-locked neighborhoods in complying with Reynolds v. Sims’ one person-one vote principle. Though some communities of interest articulate clearly that they are most aligned with other communities of interest to the north, south, east, or west, the constrictive nature of a body of 15 districts with the complex topography of Los Angeles almost guarantees inaction in the redistricting process. Compounding the geographic and topographic complexities of Los Angeles is the persistence of grave racial/ethnic discrimination in the areas of education, employment and health, which impede effective participation in the political process. Ultimately, the limited structure of the council impedes full political representation of Angelenos, and remains an outlier in its disproportionately high ratio between councilmember and residents compared to other major cities across the County, State, and U.S.
The Los Angeles City Council structure creates districts that are too large and configured in a manner that is wholly inconsistent with existing communities. This constrictive structure complicates government trust, accessibility, and responsiveness in the 21st Century. Over the course of 29 public hearings and special meetings, the Commission heard about how some communities remain invisible and ignored by city government while their district peers expressed government responsiveness on the part of a council office. Conventional literature on urban political systems suggests that small districts may increase the responsiveness of government services and lead to substantive policy recommendations and implementation.
ALTERNATIVE DISTRICT DESIGNS
While simply increasing the number of singe-member districts is one way to tackle City Council Expansion, it is not the only approach. In fact, some creative Council District designs may fit well with the unique combination of the large size, complex geographic boundaries, and diverse localized communities of Los Angeles. We will briefly cover some potential alternative designs here:
+ AT-LARGE REPRESENTATIVES
Prior to the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, a large majority of city and county representatives where elected in at-large elections. The City of Los Angeles, which adopted single-member districts back in the 1924 Charter Amendment, was one of the few exceptions during most of the 20th century. In contrast to single-member, by-district elections, in at-large elections, all candidates run citywide and the whole city votes for multiple individuals. The appropriate number of candidates with the most votes is then elected to the city council. The problem with such at-large elections is that the process is a form of voter discrimination - minority communities are disadvantaged, leaving them without meaningful representation on city council. Even in cities where a racial minority constituted a large percentage or even a majority of the local population, their preferred candidates would almost always lose elections due to remaining communities voting as a tight block for a narrow slate of opposing candidates.
We want to be clear, Fair Rep LA is not suggesting nor advocating for a return to at-large elections for the City of Los Angeles. Rather, we are hoping to provide some food for thought: some cities throughout the United States, such as Philadelphia and Houston, utilize a mixture of single-member and at-large districts. Thus, most of their representatives represent their specific districts and constituent communities, while some represent the city as a whole. Due to the diversity of communities within the City, maintaining and expanding single-member districts of the city is vital to providing equitable and meaningful representation to those Angelenos. At the same time, the large geographic size of Los Angles coupled with the irregular boundary of the City and neighboring jurisdictions leaves the City highly siloed into distinct districts. By having a small number of at-large representatives in addition to an expanded City Council, such members will be able to contribute to our city government structure by representing the interests of the City as a whole. Such an approach would likely produce more unified city-wide approaches to common concerns, including the reduction of homelessness, the improvement of public transportation, as well as cohesive climate resilience and mitigation strategies.
The Governance Reform Project, an academic group who has also weighed in on the current issue of Los Angeles Charter Reform, also included an At-Large Hybrid model in their recommendations. Specifically, the Governance Reform Project envisions a council of 25 members, 21 elected by district, and 4 representing the city as a whole.
Another alternative to single-member districts: multi-member districts! Rather than each district electing a single representative to City Council, a multi-member district would elect multiple members, often utilizing a system of Ranked Choice Voting (also called Instant-Runoff Voting). This means that each resident of the district would vote for multiple candidates running for their district on the ballot, in the order of their preference, and the individuals with the widest support would be elected. It sounds a little complicated, but check out this brief video explainer to quickly get a handle on the idea.
A multi-member district ranked choice election would have a larger pool of candidates than shown in the video, and more than one candidate would win the election. The ranked choice voting process would be used to narrow down the field to the number of representatives for that multi-member district, each broadly supported by their constituents. The City of Portland serves as an example of a jurisdiction which recently voted to establish multi-member districts coupled with the addition of ranked choice voting.
Not all multi-member districts within a city have to have the same number of representatives! Rather, the total population per representative must remain equal throughout the city. For example, if most districts within a city were single-member and one district was multi-member with 3 representatives, the population within the multi-member district would be 3 times larger than any of the single-member districts. Such an approach would allow for a greater number of Councilmembers without creating so many distinct geographical districts that communities of interest throughout the city would have to be divided to maintain roughly equal populations. Additionally, embedding a system of Ranked Choice Voting within district elections would likely lead to more representative and competetive elections.
A UNIQUE LOS ANGELES BLEND
Angelenos are not limited to any one of these district systems as we engage in City Charter Reform. Each system may offer certain benefits and drawbacks, and could be combined together to balance the needs of the City's voters. As the reform process gets underway, it is important to remain flexible and creative, considering and engaging with new ideas that may truly improve our local form of government, rather than constricting ourselves to a rigid approach that may not be the best fit for the unique character of Los Angeles.
A City Council design with many single-member districts and a few at-large districts could provide improved direct representation for communities within Los Angeles, while also ensuring that some Councilmembers are elected to represent the interests and needs of the City as a whole. These at-large representatives could also be regional, representing larger areas of the city than individual districts in order to provide regional policy solutions, rather than focusing on policy within a localized district.
Alternatively, creating multi-member districts could allow a map that minimizes the division of communities and neighborhoods, while maintaining the responsiveness of districts to the needs of minority communities.
Stay creative, and consider what approaches would lead to the best representation for your community!
For reference, here is a table of the representational models of the 20 largest cities in the United States, including the year that model was first used by that jurisdiction.
Note: San Jose is listed in this table as having 10 district representatives + 1 at-large. The at-large rep is San Jose's Mayor, who presides over City Council and has the ability to vote in all decisions. In the CLA's version of this table (referenced at the top of this page) the Mayor of San Jose is not considered a member of Council, leading to a seemingly higher number of residents per elected official.
Use Dave's Redistricting, a free online tool,
to draw your own district maps while visualizing how City Council Expansion could affect the representation
of the diverse communities within Los Angeles
- Visualize any number of Council Districts
- Share your completed maps with Fair Rep LA
- View maps made by other Angelenos