Do District-Based Elections For School Board Help Minority Candidates Get Elected?

This memo is part of a series on public policy challenges facing San Diego. Click here to read all memos in the series.

There are over 10,000 local school districts in the United States. How voters elect their school board members varies across and within states. In some areas, school board candidates run for office across an entire district—at-large election systems. In other areas, candidates run for office within a specific sub-district or ward—district-based election systems.

History of School Board Election Research

Much of the research in the 1980s and 1990s suggested that at-large systems disadvantaged minority candidates. This concern was based on the idea that at-large elections require candidates to spend more money to appeal to voters across the entirety of a district. These larger costs were thought to disproportionately benefit candidates who had the time and resources to mount such a campaign—which, in many cases, would disproportionately be white candidates.

Many school districts across the country are geographically segregated by race or ethnicity, resulting in a concentration of minority communities’ support for a particular candidate in particular areas. This reality made it all the more difficult for minority-supported candidates to win a seat on the board in at-large elections. As a consequence, some communities served by a school district had no representation on the school board. In extreme cases, winning candidates all came from the same community.

Current Research Findings

More recent studies on the effects of these electoral systems have mixed results. A study of 7,000 cities conducted in 2008 finds that district-based city council elections can increase diversity, but only if underrepresented groups are highly concentrated and compose a substantial portion of the population. Even in these cases, however, researchers find that only African American males and white females were much better off when running in district-based systems. In other words, African American women and Latinx candidates fared no better in district-based compared to at-large elections for city council.

Looking at just California, a 2019 study of all 476 municipalities took advantage of the passage of the California Voting Rights Act in 2001 to see if cities that switched from at large to single-member districts saw an increase in minority representation on the city council and estimated a 10 percent increase.

One aspect of this study was consistent with the nationwide study of 7,000 cities—the effect of switching to district-based elections on minority representation was significantly greater in communities with high concentrations of minority residents. In contrast to the nationwide study, which found that district-based elections advantaged African American men and white women but not Latinx candidates, this California-specific revealed a heightened effect (approximately a 20 percent increase in city council representation) specifically in high-Latinx cities.

The most relevant research about the relationship between school board representation and election type examined elections in the United States’ 1,800 largest school between 2001 and 2008. This study finds that African Americans are overrepresented on school boards that have at-large elections when African Americans are a minority of the population in that district.

In 2010, a study of California school boards examined Latinx representation, including a large-scale survey of candidates. They find that, at the very least, perceptions about at-large elections are barriers to entry for Latinx candidates. At the same time – those same researchers, using 2004-2005 data, find that Latinx representation on school boards is no greater in district-based systems.

Analysis and Ways Forward

Although the evidence is mixed about whether district-based elections have effects on representation, it is important to note that it is mixed in only one direction. This is to say that depending on the type (school board, city council), the time, and the place of the elections, research shows district-based systems either close the representation gap on school boards or have no effect.

In other words—there is no research, as of yet, that demonstrates that district-based elections disadvantage underrepresented groups. It should also be noted that no study of at-large elections has yet accounted for a potential deterrence effect. This means we do not know how many candidates from underrepresented groups (if any) choose not to run for office because of perceived disadvantages in at-large elections.

Beyond the question about at-large vs. district-based election systems, it is also important to consider the other factors that affect minority candidate success. For example, researchers and candidates often identify low voter turnout as a barrier to entry. Further, the timing of school board elections likely affects these systems. Whether or not elections happen alongside state and federal races in November of even years has substantial implications for the electorate’s size and demographic makeup.

For example, San Diego Unified holds a primary election on the same day as the presidential preference and California statewide primary on March 3. While turnout will likely be greater than in prior primary elections (due to the interest and number of candidates running for president), it will pale in comparison to the general election in November. School board candidates are subject to a district-based election during the primary stage, but the demographic makeup of the primary electorate is consistently whiter, older, and wealthier than the population as a whole. Policymakers may consider studying the feasibility of switching to district-based elections for both the primary and the general election or adopting a model similar to other school districts in the region—where only one election is held in November, when turnout is greatest, potentially encouraging minority candidates to run without the possibility of being eliminated in a primary election when the electorate is less representative, or an at-large general when their electoral support is diluted.

How much information voters have about candidates also contributes to participation in the election. In California, school board and other local offices are officially nonpartisan, which is to say candidate party affiliation does not appear on the ballot. This does not prevent actual politics from manifesting, however. My own research shows that there is no difference in how “partisan” the views of school board members are based on whether they are elected through nonpartisan elections (like California) or through traditional partisan contests.

The absence of party labels deprives voters of information and research has shown that it can lead to voters using other cues, such as candidate gender, race, or ethnicity, to inform their vote choice, if they choose to vote at all. This effect looms even larger in local races when most voters already have little information about the candidates.

There are steps potential candidates can take to mitigate these effects and boost voter participation, however. School board candidates are free to make their party affiliations known through avenues outside the ballot, just as parties are free to endorse candidates. The extent to which either of these paths can be explored may help boost voter participation.

Those interested in a healthier and more representative democracy for local school districts should consider all policy proposals that motivate greater levels of political participation.

When Preparation Meets Opportunity: Old Lessons Are New Again


Years ago in a relatively small town, a failed board election campaign was ultimately lost by the candidate I worked for, but it taught me some fundamental lessons about the political process. Even at that level, the lessons mirrored lessons I had learned years before as a failed candidate for high school student council president. These lessons seem even more important in the face of Voter ID laws, Citizens United, and McCutcheon v FEC. Money can be a menace, but ignorance of the process can be just as detrimental.

First Friends
After watching my friend unsuccessfully compete for the school board seat, he had apparently learned something the second time around when he decided to schedule a meeting with the head of the Ministerial Council.

What he did not practice the first time around is the law of first friends. The whole entourage thing that some celebs have going is also a necessity in electoral politics. If you cannot show that you have friends that will hang with you, it is hard to convince groups to support you. The first meeting with the Ministerial Council, my friend called at the last minute to ask if I would accompany him. He said frantically, “We’re meeting at a restaurant”.  They asked if I had anyone to bring with me. I panicked and said your name.” The meeting went well, but the pastors in attendance wondered aloud why our pastor was not a member of the council. Needless to say, the next meeting included our pastor.

The Power of People Knowing You
The naive may think that politics is a simple matter of getting your name on the ballot. “It’s who you know,” they may say. My friend knew how to get on the ballot. But, his miscalculation was what it took to get voters to select his name as opposed to others. “It’s not just about who you know, but it’s also about who knows you.” Another lesson, he learned the hard way.

The second time around, his campaign was top-to-bottom about creating a compelling narrative to inform constituents. He pulled his family along on trips to local churches, soul food restaurants, school PTA meetings, and more. He became a master of striking up conversations with strangers.

The Mechanism of Campaigning
My friend’s run at the school board post was much more methodical the second time around. I had learned the lessons of creating a campaign mechanism as a high school senior. I was well-known in my school of about 1000 students, but being well-known does not make a campaign that requires action.

One morning a couple of days prior to the election, I arrived to school and was greeted at the door by my two challengers each with their own tables handing out ice cream to the student body. It was if I had turned to stone as I watched voters streaming to their tables accepting treats. I have often reflected on that moment as my career has progressed. Never again will I rely on organic development when it matters. I will find ways to connect with people I do not know, and I will never underestimate the power of a small cup of ice cream.

The Reality of Politics
With the fluster around money, the truth can be lost that voters want to be informed and are capable of voting their conscience. It is true that many vote on ideals or out of resistance to a candidate. My friend’s bid for school board was fraught with expenses from filing fees to yard signs to personal donations to charities. Hosting fundraisers was a legitimate support activity. Yet, he was not the pick of the party. It was not just money he was up against. It was an institutional structure.

Even more striking is the change that happens when a voter or a political wannabe comprehends the political entity itself. More than just how a bill becomes a law, how certain individuals in certain positions balance power and protect individual liberties.

At the conclusion of his campaign, my friend notified me that the party so admired his campaign that he had been appointed to another non-elected board position in the city. On that board, he rose to represent the city in national venues.

My failed student council bid resulted in focused work on the class level, and I was invited by the class president to get involved. Most notably, I worked to craft an awareness campaign for a multi-campus radio competition.

From where I sit, both these failures turned successes were accomplished through knowledge of the system, who knew us, but also through someone who was willing to appoint us to important tasks. Our requirement was to make ourselves a target for appointment.

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