District versus at large elections

April, 2010

North Carolina law permits cities, towns, and villages to elect their governing board members through at-large elections; through district elections using either voting districts or residence districts; through elections that use “blended” districts, in which primaries are on a district basis and elections on a residence district basis; or through some combination of at large and district. 

In at-large elections, voters from across the city vote for candidates running for office and the candidates do not represent a specific district within the city.  Davidson and Korbel (1981) explain that the concept of at-large elections was originally developed by the Progressives.  “While a major purpose of the structural reform was to take city government out of the hands of neighborhood and ethnic leaders, thus centralizing it under the control of businessmen, the ostensible reasons were the lofty goals of abolishing corrupt machines and bringing efficiency and businesslike principles to local government.”   

When cities, towns, or villages use district elections, some or all members of the governing board represent specific districts within a city.  With voting districts, only voters who live in a particular district may vote for candidates running for the seat representing that district.  In residence districts, candidates must reside in the district but all voters in the city vote in the election for that district’s board member.  In blended districts, which are used in voting systems with primaries, candidates must reside in the district, only district voters may participate in the primary, but all city voters participate in the general election.

            In mixed systems, some number of candidates are elected on an at-large basis and some are elected on a district basis.  The districts might be either voting districts or residence districts.

Download (doc, 53.25 KB)