At-large is a description for members of a governing body who are elected or appointed to represent a whole membership or population (notably a city, county, state, province, nation, club or association), rather than a subset. In multi-hierarchical bodies the term rarely extends to a tier beneath the highest division. A contrast is implied, with certain electoral districts or narrower divisions. It can be given to the associated territory, if any, to denote its undivided nature, in a specific context. Unambiguous synonymous are the prefixes of cross-, all- or whole-, such as cross-membership, or all-state.
The term is used as a suffix referring to specific members (such as the U.S. congressional Representative/the Member/Rep. for Wyoming at large). It figures as a generic prefix of its subject matter (such as Wyoming is an at-large U.S. congressional district, at present). It is commonly used when making or highlighting a direct contrast with subdivided equivalents that may be past or present, or seen in exotic comparators. If fairly applied it indicates that the described zone has no further subsets used for the same representative purpose. A fair exception is a nil-exceptions arrangement of overlapping tiers (resembling or being district and regional representatives, one set of which is at large) for return to the very same chamber, and consequent issue of multiple ballots for plural voting to every voter. This avoids plural voting competing with single voting in the jurisdiction, an inherent different level of democratic power.
Examples of a democratic power disparity were found in a small number of states at certain U.S. Congresses, between 1853 and 1967, and in the old lower houses of United Kingdom and Ireland, whereby certain voters could vote for (and lobby) at-large (whole-state/County) and district(-based) representatives to them, giving zones of plural voting and thus representation contrasting with zones, for the same national assembly, of single voting and representation. In 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court banned such plural voting for the US Congress (thus banning at-large, whole-state congressional districts which overlap state subdivision congressional districts).
Universal principles apply regardless whether election(s) are for an at-large member, or not.
Some municipalities in Canada elect part or all of their city councils at-large. The form of municipal election is widespread in small towns to avoid "them and us" cultural dissociation of dividing them into wards. Notable larger instances are, from west to east:
The three territories: Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are federally served in the Parliament of Canada by one at-large Member of Parliament and Senator each. These have high apportionment but are ethnically diverse and of exceptional size. Provinces are divided to make up the other 335 electoral districts (ridings or comtés). The latter are combined into large regions to select the other 102 senators.
In Israel, elections for the Knesset (the national parliament) are conducted on an at-large basis by proportional representation from party lists. Election of municipal and town (but not regional) councils are on the same basis.
In the Netherlands, elections for the House of Representatives (the lower house of the States-General, the national parliament) are conducted on an at-large basis by proportional representation from party lists.
This manner of election applies to the Senate. All voters can cast twelve votes to refresh half of the senate, namely twelve senators, from a longer list of candidates. The simple tally determines the winners (plurality-at-large voting).
The legislatures of the provinces elect one member to the House of Representatives resulting in their prestige of being those who represent "sole districts". Likewise, the Sangguniang Kabataan (Youth Councils), Sangguniang Barangay (Village Councils), Sangguniang Bayan (Municipal Councils) and some Sangguniang Panlungsod (City Councils) elect the other members. It follows each such true or quasi-local government unit does not in the purest sense elect members at-large when analysing their geography as each member co-exists with the others who have territorial overlap, as representing greater or lower-rank districts. The members are in law chosen by the public directly or indirectly. City Council-elected and Sangguniang Panlalawigan (Provincial Board)-elected members are elected such that the city or province may be split into as much as seven districts, then each elects at least two members.
Article One of the United States Constitution provides for direct election of members of the House of Representatives. A congressional act passed in 1967, 2 U.S.C. § 2c, dictates that representatives must be elected from geographical districts and that these must be single-member districts. Indeed it confirms when the state has a single representative, that will be a representative at-large.
This is a table of every such instance. It shows the situation applied to a small, varying group of states in three periods. The 33rd Congress began in 1853; it ended two years later. The 38th began in 1863; the 50th ended in 1889. The 53rd began in 1893; the 89th ended in January, 1967, the final such period. This was due to the 1964 case of Reynolds v. Sims: the United States Supreme Court determined that the general basis of apportionment must be "one person, one vote."
|Congress||State & Number of at-large seats|
|43rd||AL (2), AR (1), IN (2), LA (1), NY (1), PA (3), SC (1), TN (1), TX (2)|
|48th||AR (1), CA (2), GA (1), KS (4), NY (1), NC (1), PA (1), VA (1)|
|53rd||IL (2), KS (1), PA (2)|
|54th||KS (1), PA (2)|
|55th||KS (1), PA (2)|
|56th||KS (1), PA (2)|
|57th||KS (1), PA (2)|
|58th||CO (1), CT (1), KS (1)|
|59th||CO (1), CT (1), KS (1)|
|60th||CO (1), CT (1)|
|61st||CO (1), CT (1)|
|62nd||CO (1), CT (1)|
|63rd||AL (1), CO (2), FL (1), IL (2), MI (1), MN (1), OH (1), OK (3), PA (4), TX (2), WA (2), WV (1)|
|64th||AL (1), IL (2), PA (4), TX (2), WV (1)|
|65th||IL (2), PA (4), TX (2)|
|66th||IL (2), PA (4)|
|67th||IL (2), PA (4)|
|73rd||CT (1), FL (1), IL (2), NY (2), OH (2), OK (1), TX (3)|
|74th||CT (1), FL (1), IL (2), NY (2), OH (2), OK (1)|
|75th||CT (1), IL (2), NY (2), OH (2), OK (1)|
|76th||CT (1), IL (2), NY (2), OH (2), OK (1)|
|77th||CT (1), IL (2), NY (2), OH (2), OK (1)|
|78th||CT (1), FL (1), IL (1), NY (2), OH (1), PA (1)|
|79th||CT (1), IL (1), OH (1)|
|80th||CT (1), IL (1), OH (1)|
|81st||CT (1), OH (1)|
|82nd||CT (1), OH (1)|
|83rd||CT (1), TX (1), WA (1)|
|84th||CT (1), TX (1), WA (1)|
|85th||CT (1), TX (1), WA (1)|
|88th||AL (8), CT (1), MD (1), MI (1), OH (1), TX (1)|
|89th||MD (1), OH (1), TX (1)|
As of 2021, ten U.S. states have at least one legislative chamber which uses multi-winner at-large districts:
In the 1980s, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, South Carolina, and Virginia all moved entirely from multi-winner districts in either chamber, followed by Alaska, Georgia, and Indiana in the 1990s. After the 2010 United States redistricting cycle, Nevada eliminated their two remaining multi-member senate districts and implemented single-winner districts in both houses. In 2018, West Virginia passed a law switching all remaining multi-winner House of Delegates seats to single-winner districts following the 2020 United States Census.
Since passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and lessening of some historic barriers to voter registration and voting, legal challenges have been made based on at-large election schemes at the county or city level, including in school board elections, in numerous jurisdictions where minorities had been effectively excluded from representation on local councils or boards. An example is Charleston County, South Carolina, which was sued in 2001 and reached a settlement in 2004. Its county commission changed to nine members elected from single-member districts; in 2015 they included six white Republicans and three African-American Democrats, where the black minority makes up more than one-third of the population.
In another instance, in 2013 Fayette County, Georgia, which had an estimated 70% white majority and 20% black minority, was ordered by a federal district court to develop single-member districts for election of members to its county council and its school board. Due to at-large voting, African Americans had been unable to elect any candidate of their choice to either of these boards for decades. Such local election systems have become subject to litigation, since enabling more representative elections can create entry points for minorities and women into the political system, as well as providing more representative government. In the late 1980s, several major cities in Tennessee reached settlement in court cases to adopt single-member districts in order to enable minorities to elect candidates of their choice to city councils; they had previously been excluded by at-large voting favoring the majority population. By 2015, voters in two of these cities had elected women mayors who had gotten their start in being elected to the city council from single-member districts.
The town of Islip, New York was sued by four residents in 2018 for violating the Voting Rights Act by maintaining a discriminatory at-large council system. One-third of Islip's population is Hispanic, but only one person of color has ever been elected to a town seat. As part of the settlement reached in 2020, the at-large system will be abolished and replaced by four council districts by 2023.
Some states have laws which further discourage the use of at-large districts. For example, the California Voting Rights Act removes one of the criteria required for a successful federal Voting Rights Act challenge, thus resulting in hundreds of cities, school districts, and special districts to move to single member area-based elections.