Descriptive Representation
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Descriptive representation among local officials refers to having a racial or ethnic distribution among local officials that matches the distribution of the residents they represent. This predictor describes the effects that being or feeling represented by local officials has on a given person’s civic engagement as well as their sense of belonging and empowerment. Having local elected officials whose demographic characteristics (i.e., gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation) broadly reflect those of their constituents correlates with greater feelings of political influence (power and autonomy) and engagement among otherwise underrepresented demographic groups (being valued in community).

Evidence of the Relationship between Predictor and Related Outcomes

  • Gleason and Stout (2014) study whether respondents feel like their opinion matters to their representatives (internal political efficacy) by comparing Black individuals living in congressional districts with white representatives with Black individuals living in districts with Black representatives. For example, Black individuals were asked to rank their agreement (on a five-point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree) with the following statement: “people like me have no say in what government does.” Of those who strongly disagree with that statement, 35.2 percent have a Black representative in their district compared with 26.4 percent who do not have a Black representative in their district. The results from this study indicate that Black individuals who are represented by Black officials feel more confident that they can influence public policy than their counterparts who are located in districts with non-Black representatives (Gleason and Stout 2014).
  • Fowler, Merolla, and Sellers (2012) define descriptive representation as whether an individual is represented at the congressional level by someone they share an ethnicity with, looking at the incumbent serving in the US House of Representatives for a district. Respondents were asked about their level of interest in following campaigns on a three-point scale from “not much” to “very interested.” They were also asked how much they care who wins the House election. Response options were on a four-point scale ranging from “not at all” to a “great deal.” The authors find that the share of Black individuals very interested in following campaigns is 10 percentage points higher for those living in districts with a Black representative compared with those in districts without a Black representative. They also find that the share of Black individuals who care a great deal about who wins the House election is 11.6 percentage points higher among those living in districts with a Black representative compared with those in districts without one. Further, having a Black representative increases the probability of Black individuals voting in the House election by 9 percentage points. Respondents were also asked a battery of questions about whether they engaged in the following activities in their community (on a scale of 0 to 3): community work, contact with an official, and meetings on school or community issues. These responses were combined into a scale measuring respondents’ level of community engagement. Black individuals living in a district with a Black representative have a higher probability of being in the highest level of community engagement by 2.3 percentage points. Having a Black representative increases Black resident general community engagement, defined as community work, contact with an official, or attendance of a meeting on school or community issues, although the effects of having a Black representative are weaker for general community engagement compared with political interest and voting behavior. The effects of living in a district with a Latino representative for Latino respondents on political attentiveness and engagement are much weaker among Latino individuals than among Black individuals, with none of the variables statically significant.
  • Rocha and colleagues (2010) show that, holding all other factors constant, Black residents in states with a higher share of Black lawmakers in the state legislature are significantly more likely to vote than an identical Black person residing in a state with less representation in the legislature. This finding holds over time (1996 to 2006) and election type (congressional and presidential); it also applies to Latino residents.

How Investments Can Influence the Predictor at State or Local Levels

Local initiatives could be targeted to encourage more people from disinvested communities to run for office and offer resources to support their campaigns. This may then increase the chances of individuals from underrepresented groups holding office. Further, increasing the awareness in communities about existing descriptive representation in their governments’ bodies may also motivate a more diverse pool of people to run for office. One method to promote descriptive representation is cumulative voting (Rausch 2001). Cumulative voting is an at-large voting system where voters are given a certain number of votes, and the exact number of votes is determined by the number of electoral seats to be filled (Rausch 2001). Cumulative voting gives voters from underrepresented groups the ability to organize and pool votes toward candidates they feel best represent them (Grofman 1981). This ensures the voices of all groups are heard.


The primary reference is marked with an asterisk.

*Gleason, Shane, and Christopher Stout. 2014. “Who is Empowering Who: Exploring the Causal Relationship between Descriptive Representation and Black Empowerment.” Journal of Black Studies 45 (7): 635–59.

Grofman, Bernard 1981. “Alternatives to Single-Member Plurality Districts: Legal and Empirical Issues.” Policy Studies Journal 9: 875-898. 

Fowler, Derek, Jennifer Merolla, and Abbylin Sellers. 2012. “The Effects of Descriptive Representation on Political Attitudes and Behaviors.” Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Portland, Oregon, March 22–24. 

Rausch, John David Jr. 2001. “Cumulative Voting Comes to the Amarillo Independent School District: A Research Note.” Politics & Policy 29: 602–19. 

Rocha, Rene, Caroline J. Tolbert, Daniel C. Bowen, and Christopher J. Clark. 2010. “Race and Turnout: Does Descriptive Representation in State Legislatures Increase Minority Voting?” Political Research Quarterly 63 (4): 890–907.

Responsible and Just Governance

Related outcome: Active civic engagement

Mobility dimensions engaged: Power and autonomy; being valued in community