Unequal Representation in Local Democracies: An Analysis of Public Opinion and Policy Outcomes in U.S. Cities
Committee: Paru Shah (chair), Tom Holbrook, Joel Rast, Kathy Dolan

The nature of the connection between what citizens want and what government does is a central consideration in evaluating the strengths and weakness of democratic governance. A large body of research in “mainstream” American politics literature examines the link between public opinion and responsiveness at the national, state, and district level, generally finding that outcomes reflect citizen preferences. However, much less is known about the relationship at the municipal level. In my dissertation project, I apply new methods for the estimation of subnational public opinion in order to analyze the quality and process of representation in local politics. In doing so, my work bridges insights from scholarship in the fields of American political behavior, urban politics, and political methodology.
The first part of my dissertation project (presented at PolMeth, July 2019) explores questions related to the quality of representation in local politics. Much of the existing research in this area regards public opinion as a simple summary of the opinions of all citizens within the geographic unit of interest. This strategy assumes roughly equal weight among individuals, overlooking the possibility that opinion-policy links may be stronger for some groups than for others. As a result, policy may be more representative of the (different) preferences of certain groups. Departing from the conventional item-response model framework, I apply a group-level Bayesian IRT model to estimate public opinion of different subgroups defined by geographic and demographic characteristics. Using these estimates, I show that policy is responsive to citizen preferences, but some opinions appear to count more than others. These disparities are particularly salient among racial divisions. Poster available here.
In the second part of my dissertation project, I explore the institutional processes through which representation occurs. Unique to the study of urban and local politics is the variation in formal institutional arrangements. Unsurprisingly, formal institutional arrangements have occupied a significant space in the study of local political outcomes. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I find few differences between different institutional arrangements when it comes to facilitating the representation of public opinion in local political outcomes. From this ‘non-finding’, I develop a theory about the institutionalization of certain policy interests over time. I argue that decades of land-use policy decisions continue to reinforce a distorted hierarchy of influence in local politics. As a result of the disproportionate influence of certain interests, the underlying structure of public opinion is key to understanding when (and how) representation of minority interests occurs.
The final part of my dissertation analyzes the impact of the underlying structure of public opinion and explores its role in understanding inequality in political representation. This paper is situated within similar debates in other studies of representation between those that find that the preferences of low-income voters receive lower weights than high-income counterparts (e.g., Bartels/Gilens) and scholars who counter by arguing that high and income voters do not differ on very many issues (e.g., Enns). If there is a relatively strong correspondence between the preferences of the different racial groups, this may limit the number of issues where minority groups lose out because their preferences are not particularly different than the preferences of white residents. Going forward, I plan to continue to explore the concept of ‘coincidental representation’ and its implications for our understanding of minority representation in local politics.