What is the difference between a single-member district election and an at-large system?

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At the federal level, single-member elections are how congressional representatives in the House of Representatives are elected. Each state is divided into districts, and each district has the opportunity to elect a member to represent specifically that district. At the federal level, at-large elections are how senators are elected. Every...

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At the federal level, single-member elections are how congressional representatives in the House of Representatives are elected. Each state is divided into districts, and each district has the opportunity to elect a member to represent specifically that district. At the federal level, at-large elections are how senators are elected. Every person within a state has the ability to elect someone to represent that state as a whole. At-large elections are often staggered, whereby states typically do not elect both of their senators in the same election cycle.

In order to compare these systems, it’s best to examine local elections, such as city elections. Cities can employ one or a mix of these methods in order to elect city representatives. Some cities create districts within their city and then allow each district to elect their representation at the city level. In this single-member method, the idea is that decreasing the scope of a constituency should in theory allow for representatives who are hyper-focused on the issues that narrow constituency cares about most.

Other cities employ at-large elections, where everyone in the city has the opportunity to vote for their representation. So, while the constituency is larger, in theory the system allows for more voices to have input. This system was first implemented in an attempt to break up powerful political machines that dominated elections at the city level. However, this system can suppress major issues. For example, if in an at-large election, a city has 51% wealthy constituents who want taxes lowered and 49% poor constituents who want taxes increased to provide additional funding for the education system, that 51% can elect their represented and ignore the failing schools.

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"Single-member district" elections include a wide variety of elections. The term merely refers to an electoral district, regardless of size, that chooses just one member in an election.

Elections to the US House of Representatives are single-member district elections, as are elections for state legislative bodies. Their defining feature is that they choose a single representative that will represent them in a larger body made up of representatives from other geographic districts. These elections are "winner take all," and the winner usually has to secure a plurality of votes, or more than any other candidate.

Many municipalities have single-member district elections, with one person representing their geographic district on a city council. But some are "at-large," meaning people are elected to serve the entire municipality or county government. In an at-large election for city council, people from throughout the city vote for officials that will represent the entire city, rather than a smaller geographic district. Sometimes voters in this system cast their votes for more than one candidate to fill multiple positions, and sometimes terms are staggered to ensure only one position is open at a time. Many city councils are mixed, with representatives from specific districts or precincts serving alongside at-large representatives.

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Single-member districts and at-large systems are both ways to elect representatives to serve as legislators for a municipality. Some cities or towns use just one of these systems, while others have a combination of single-member district representatives and at-large members.

A single-member district system means that each representative is elected by voters from a particular part of the city. Sometimes this division is done along geographical lines. More often, it is done by population, so that each representative has the same number of constituents. Usually, the representative must reside in the district he or she represents. A positive aspect of this system is that it is more likely that the representative and the constituents will be able to form a connection. Since the elected official is usually a well-known entity in their neighborhood, district voters can make a more informed decision at the poll and are usually more comfortable approaching the representative if they want to discuss an issue.

An at-large system means that voters from the entire municipality can vote for anyone running for office. At-large representatives do not represent one particular district, but rather the city or town as a whole. An advantage of this system is that constituents have more than one representative to call upon if they have an issue or concern.

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Many political systems, at the local, or city, level feature both single-member district elections and at-large elections. Cities and towns often have city councils, with members elected to represent defined districts within the city or town. To that extent, the system or arrangement is no different form elections at the federal level for the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives, which has its local equivalent in each state, is composed of 435 members of Congress elected by and representative of individual districts. Each congressional district--all 435 of them--has its own elected representatives. Per the terms of Article I of the U.S. Constitution, each state also has two senators, both of whom represent the entirety of their respective states. In other words, U.S. Senators represent all of the districts within their state, and that brings us back to the definition of "at-large" members of city or town councils. While districts, as noted, elect their own representatives, there are also, in many cases, individuals elected with the responsibility of representing the entirety of the city or town in question. These latter individuals run as "at-large" candidates, and are voted upon by the entire polity's electorate. In this respect, at-large members of councils are similar to senators at the federal level.

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The difference here is not between single member and at-large.  An at-large system can (and often does) have single members.  The difference is between a district system and an at-large system.  This difference applies mainly to city elections.

In a city with a district system, each area of a city elects a representative to represent it on a city council.  In Chicago, for example, there are districts called "wards" that each elect an alderman to represent them.  In other cities (like Seattle) there are no districts.  Each member of the Seattle city council represents the city as a whole and can be from anywhere in the city.

The at-large system became popular during the Progressive Era because it was seen as a way to break the power of political machines.

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