At-Large Districts: Here’s What Voters Should Know About Them

In the upcoming Pinellas County elections, to be held Nov. 5, the city of Seminole will vote on two City Council seats that are defined as “at-large.” During the County school board elections that were held last year, there were three candidates running for at-large seats. (The other four were running in what the Pinellas County School Board referred to as “single-member” districts.)

Which leads to the question: What exactly is an at-large seat?

Merriam-Webster defines at-large representation as “relating to or being a political representative who is elected to serve an entire area rather than one of its subdivisions.”  This contrasts with representation accorded to smaller and geographically defined constituencies or districts within the larger region.

At-Large vs. Single-Member Districts: What’s the Difference?

The Pinellas County school board’s website basically says at-large districts are voted on by the qualified voters of the entire school district, while single-member districts are voted on by the voters who reside in each of the single-member districts.

(Single-member district candidates are also required to reside within the single-member district from which she or he is elected.)

Wondering why there are these distinctions? Proponents of at-large representation believe that those elected to those seats can be more objective, working for the good of the whole as a whole rather than focusing on the narrower needs of a single constituency, according to the National League of Cities.  The thinking is that all representatives should be responsive to all citizens, rather than those in a geographically limited district.

In addition, because of the ability to draw from the population as a whole rather than from limited districts, there may be a larger pool of candidates from which to choose.

Opponents of at-large representation believe that such elections may lead to disenfranchising minority populations.  They feel it potentially gives a small majority of the electorate full control of all representation, causing the government to disregard the needs of underrepresented voters.

(At-large voting was limited by Congress for federal elections in the 1982 Extension of the Voting Rights Act, which made it easier to litigate against racially discriminatory districting.)

How Common Are At-Large Districts?

The NLC site cites sources that show that, potential disadvantages aside, at-large representation remains common in local elections, with some 64% of municipalities using at-large elections and 21% of municipalities using a combination of district and at-large representation. Generally, smaller cities (pop. 25,000-70,000) are more likely to have at-large elections, while larger cities (pop. above 200,000) go with district.

This year, St. Petersburg will elect City Council members from Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7, none of which are at-large seats. So each candidate must reside in hers or his district, and only qualified voters who reside in those districts can vote for their district’s candidate in the primary (slated for August 27).

The two candidates receiving the most votes in each district are included on the Nov. 5 general election ballot, and all candidates on the ballot are voted on at-large by qualified voters. (Check out this Tampa Bay Times article to get more info on which candidates have qualified to run.)

Seminole will elect two Councilors at-large as well as its mayor in the Nov. general election.

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