Serendipitously, I recently came across a capstone report by Jason Malinowski entitled “Campaign Spending in City Council Elections: A Comparison of At-Large and District Contests.” In it, Malinowski examines the relationship between campaign spending in City Council elections and the type of electoral system—at-large, mixed, or single-member district—employed by the city. One of the arguments for single-member district electoral systems is that candidates do not have to raise and spend as much money as they do in a city with an at-large electoral system. This increases the opportunities for candidates to run for city council seats. But is it true that winning a city council seat in a single-member district electoral system is less expensive than competing for a city council seat in an at-large electoral system?
Malinowski notes that there are few studies comparing campaign spending and type of electoral system. He provides the table below comparing three empirical studies:
Malinowski compares the mean spending by winning candidates in 19 large cities that employ different methods of electing council candidates. The graphic displays his results:
In Austin, according to Malinowski’s data, a winning candidate spent a mean of $161,000 in the at-large system. In 2014, the mean spending by a winning candidate was $119,153. The difference is $41,847, a 26 percent decrease in mean campaign spending. The difference is less than what Malinowski found, but the effect is noteworthy. In his conclusion, Malinowski states:
. . . [T]his study finds a strong relationship between city council electoral system and the amount of campaign funds spent by winning candidates. Specifically, it finds that candidates for at-large contests expend a significantly greater amount of funds than district candidates. This observation appears consistently across a set of description statistics comparisons and regression analyses. The difference in spending is estimated to be approximately $76,000. These findings suggest that cities with at-large systems, who want to increase political participation and decrease the influence of moneyed special interests, may wish to evaluate a change to a district or mixed electoral system.