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Representation in Municipal Government

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 August 2014

University of California Los Angeles
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Municipal governments play a vital role in American democracy, as well as in governments around the world. Despite this, little is known about the degree to which cities are responsive to the views of their citizens. In the past, the unavailability of data on the policy preferences of citizens at the municipal level has limited scholars’ ability to study the responsiveness of municipal government. We overcome this problem by using recent advances in opinion estimation to measure the mean policy conservatism in every U.S. city and town with a population above 20,000 people. Despite the supposition in the literature that municipal politics are non-ideological, we find that the policies enacted by cities across a range of policy areas correspond with the liberal-conservative positions of their citizens on national policy issues. In addition, we consider the influence of institutions, such as the presence of an elected mayor, the popular initiative, partisan elections, term limits, and at-large elections. Our results show that these institutions have little consistent impact on policy responsiveness in municipal government. These results demonstrate a robust role for citizen policy preferences in determining municipal policy outcomes, but cast doubt on the hypothesis that simple institutional reforms enhance responsiveness in municipal governments.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2014 

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