Ababiy: Our city needs 13 neighborhood wards

The proposal to have at-large representation in the Minneapolis City Council would take away a voice for residents in poorer and more diverse wards in the city.

Jonathan Ababiy

This week, the Minneapolis Charter Commission will consider a new citizen proposal. The charter commission is similar to a constitutional convention in that it considers petitions and ideas to change the City’s charter. Only a ballot question or 13-0 vote in the City Council can change the charter, but the charter commission acts as a first step of the process. Anyone can submit something by gathering enough signatures on a petition.

The “anyone can submit something” aspect of charter commission appears to have taken an insidious turn. Although seemingly a good idea, the citizen proposal on this month’s commission’s agenda is a power grab that dilutes the power of students, minorities and low-income communities across the city. It would concentrate power within the wealthier southwest portion of the City.

The citizen proposal suggests switching the city from a 13 ward and representative system over to system with 9 wards and four at-large representatives. This kind of system isn’t novel or groundbreaking. The proposal notes that cities like Seattle, Boston and Duluth all have city councils that rely on at-large representatives. 

The proposal has a section devoted to the nuts and bolts of the idea, but the middle section is my favorite. It is where you can see the wolf getting a little fidgety in its sheep clothing. This section is where political consultants make their bread and butter, by stretching and contorting words like plastic putty until they merely give the appearance of meaning.

What I mean is this beautiful sentence: “Ward systems, in which representatives are elected by geographic area, foster parochialism because a representative is accountable only to the voters in their ward.” I don’t see a problem in any part of that sentence, as I sure hope representatives are accountable to the voters of their ward. The proposal tries to tell you a completely normal thing is a problem, but stretches itself too far — it breaks under the sheer tension of its idiocy.

Why would we want to move away from our ward system? What’s wrong with representatives elected by a geographical area doing the completely normal thing of serving primarily the interests of that geographical area? 

A laundry list of cities across America sued as a result of the Voting Rights Act can give you an answer to that question. Minorities are kept from power in cities that use at-large city councils, because a ward system gives every area of the city a representative. This is how Somalis in Cedar Riverside, although a minority overall in Minneapolis, have representation on the Minneapolis City Council, even if the voter turnout in Ward 6 was around 65 percent in 2018. 

Under an at-large system, that could never happen. Majorities can easily game elections through high turnouts and block voting. Southwest Minneapolis’ Ward 13, where stately houses overlook Lakes Bde Maka Ska and Harriet, had a nearly 86 percent voter turnout that same year, much higher than Ward 6’s 65 percent. In addition, Ward 13 had just under twice as many ballots cast in 2018 as Ward 3, even though a 2015 city study of its wards found that Ward 13 was only 3,000 people larger than Ward 3. An at-large system would clearly give affluent wards, like Ward 13, more power than they already have at the expense of residents in poorer, more diverse wards.

Minneapolis’ current ward system protects and amplifies the voices of racial and economic minorities in this city. Allowing the charter to be amended would change that. The proposal is a naked power grab and needs to be rejected.