Do Multimember Districts Lead to Free‐Riding?

Date01 November 2007
Published date01 November 2007
649Multimember Districts
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
California Institute of Technology
Do Multimember Districts
Lead to Free-Riding?
We studied the effects of districting on intergovernmental aid by state govern-
ments to local governments in the United States. We found that metropolitan areas
receive relatively more aid when represented in the state legislature by an at-large
delegation than when divided into single-member districts. This suggests that the
free-riding that may occur with at-large representation is more than counterbalanced
by other factors. The estimated effects are robust to the effects of other confounding
factors as well as the choice of estimators.
What effects, if any, do electoral institutions have on political
representation and policy outcomes? This is a key question in political
economy and political science, and it has been explored both theoreti-
cally and empirically by many scholars. For example, one significant
body of research has explored the differences between plurality-rule
and proportional-rule systems. Another has studied the effects of
malapportionment. A third has focused on the special case of the U.S.
presidential electoral college. A fourth has analyzed the differences
between single-member and multimember districts.1
One of the main hypotheses in the literature on single-member
districts (SMDs) versus multimember districts (MMDs) is that SMDs
lead to closer ties between voters and their representatives, better
electoral accountability, and, consequently, better performance by
representatives. Consider a large city with, say, 15 state legislators. If
these legislators are all elected from one at-large, 15-member district,
then they will face a collective-action problem. It is difficult for voters
to know whom to reward for bringing home the bacon, or whom to
blame when no project appears. The result is low-powered incentives
and the tendency for each of the city’s representatives to shirk. The
city may suffer and not obtain its fair share of state spending.
650 James M. Snyder, Jr. and Michiko Ueda
There is some empirical work supporting the free-riding
hypothesis, but it is not overwhelming. Jewell (1969) and Cooper and
Richardson (2006) have found that representatives elected from SMDs
are more likely to describe their roles as “delegates,” while those elected
from MMDs are more likely to describe their roles as “trustees.” Scholl
(1986) has found a similar pattern in his survey of British (SMD) and
French (MMD) members of the European Parliament: British members
are more likely to emphasize constituency service and regional issues.
Scholl has also found evidence of an effect on the percentage of regional
projects passed, but since he does not report the sizes of these projects,
it is difficult to draw firm conclusions. Freeman and Richardson (1996)
report conflicting results about legislative roles: in their survey, legis-
lators from MMDs claimed to spend more time performing constitu-
ency service than legislators from SMDs. Finally, a few papers on the
incumbency advantage have provided indirect evidence about shirking
and incentives—a smaller incumbency advantage, suggesting a weaker
personal link with voters—but even these results are mixed.2
Moreover, several forces work in the opposite direction. We
believe these forces have been underappreciated in the theoretical and
empirical literature and deserve more attention.
First, if a city is cut up into a number of small districts, then
many citywide projects will entail significant externalities from the
point of view of each individual representative. Legislators who
represent only a small fraction of the city’s area and population have
little incentive to work hard to obtain state aid for such projects—
highways that connect different parts of the city, a highway that circles
the city, or a citywide mass transit system. Public utilities—electricity,
gas, water, and sewage—will also be unchampioned, since utilities
tend to be citywide systems. Even school districts are typically citywide
or countywide systems. State aid for education does not go to indi-
vidual schools but to the school district as a whole; the allocation of
the funds within the school district depends not only on legislative
decisions but also on decisions by city or county officials.
Second, districting may introduce collective choice problems.
What types of projects should a city seek from the state? Alternatively,
why not seek tax cuts instead of projects? When all representatives
from a city have the same geographic constituency, they will tend to
agree on such questions, especially if they are all members of the same
party, a common outcome with the nearly universal use of plurality
rule. If the city is carved up into many small SMDs, however, then its
representatives will have different and often conflicting interests. Some
delegates will be from poorer parts of the city that seek basic services,

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