Nation, World + Society

Contrary to image, city policy does adapt to voters

Local politicians in the U.S. are responsive to voters’ views

Santa Monica City Hall
Sean Brenner/UCLA

Across the country, municipalities appear to be more responsive to voters than is often supposed, according to a new study co-authored by UCLA political scientist Chris Tausanovitch. Unfortunately, that means cities are divided by the same political issues as states or the federal government.

“Cities grapple with the same partisan divide that Congress does,” said Tausanovitch, an assistant professor of political science in the UCLA College. 

The findings will be reported in the next issue of the American Political Science Review.

Along with MIT political scientist Chris Warshaw, Tausanovitch examined policies on taxes, spending, environmental concerns and social services in the 1,600 U.S. cities and towns with populations of 20,000 or more. The researchers then compared their findings to data from seven large-scale surveys that asked American voters about their views on a wide range of policy questions, supplemented with models that predict voter preferences based on demographic and geographic information.

Tausanovitch and Warsaw found that the policies of city governments are aligned with the politics of their citizens. More liberal cities, for instance, tend to both tax and spend more, while having less-regressive tax systems that derive a lower share of revenues from sales taxes.

“Municipalities do respond to the policy preferences of citizens,” Tausanovitch said. “They are not the vacuums of democracy that they are perceived to be.”

Furthermore, they found that the correlation exists whatever the form of local government — whether the municipality is run by a mayor or council manager system, or whether elections or partisan or nonpartisan, for example. But don’t credit term limits. 

“Progressive-era reforms like term limits don’t have a noticeable effect on responsiveness, so reformers who want to make city government responsive should look elsewhere,” Tausanovitch said.

► More information about the study 

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