Today, the Austin City Council voted 4-3 against increasing participation in our municipal elections. Council Members Morrison, Cole, Spelman and Tovo voted against drastically increasing civic participation. It's a sad day for Austin that a majority of our Council seems to think that voting for them is a privilege that we just can't extend to the masses.
The City Council has the option of moving the next municipal election, currently scheduled for May 2012, to November 2012. On first reading (they have to vote on this two more times) they voted 4-3 against moving the election. As someone who wholeheartedly supports expanding participation in our democratic process, I know that this was the wrong decision. Council has to vote on this issue two more times, so if you disagree with the effort to keep our elections in May, you should weigh in.
Background: this happened because the Legislature made changes to the primary run-off calendar to allow more time for overseas/military mail-in voters. With primary run-offs occurring later in the spring, this creates a time crunch for Austin's municipal elections, which are in mid-May. Basically, the County will not have the voting machines or manpower available to conduct both a run-off and a city election within the same very tight time frame.
So, the City Council today debated moving our May 2012 election to November 2012.
Dana DeBeauvoir, our Travis County Clerk, is the elected official in charge of overseeing our elections. She wrote a memo to council (download it HERE) stated that in her professional opinion, Austin should move their elections to Novembers. In a statement to Council, she said:
“Trying to hold a May election right now, with the circumstances before you, in my opinion is extraordinarily difficult. Quite frankly, in my professional opinion, I do not know how you are going to accomplish it. I really believe you would be a better position if you would seriously consider conducting your municipal election with the November election. … [In November] we are able to put everything on one Election Day, and one ballot, and [voters]will be able to go to one set of polling places, unlike the multiple places in May.”
Ok, so the elected official whose job it is to make our elections happen, says we should move it to November. DeBeauvoir even offered to put the municipal races above the Presidential and State elections on the ballot, so that people wouldn't miss them at the bottom of the ballot. (One could argue that putting the City races on the bottom, where roll-off would be higher than atop the ballot, would actually serve some of these folks better.)
Let's look at the other arguments for and against moving the Austin municipal elections to Novembers.
Arguments For Moving to November:
- Turnout will increase to potentially 65% of the population from the current 8-10%
- Costs will be lower to the City: Austin elections will use the same voting machines and polling staff already in place for November elections
- The demographics of the electorate will more resemble the demographics of Austin.
Arguments For Keeping it in May:
- Council members won't violate oath to uphold the charter
- Council members won't vote to extend their terms 6 months
- Contribution limits are too low to raise enough money campaign to larger electorates
The cost of the election issue is of real concern here. Austin doesn't have a lot of extra money lying around, as evidenced by the recent budget scuffle over whether or not we could afford 16 additional cops. According to DeBeauvoir, a May 2012 Election would cost the City of Austin $1 million to conduct on their own. If ACC and AISD also held their elections in May 2012, the cost to the COA would be $336,000. However, it's unlikely that ACC and AISD both will shell out their $330K to share costs on that May election. They also are kinda broke. On the other hand, the cost to Austin for holding their election in November 2012 is approximately $200,00 or possibly less. And since Austin is already going to hold an election on November 2012 for rail, charter and bonds, any cost to the City for a May 2012 is an extra unnecessary cost.
There is also a very slight chance, but possible cost, of $2.1 million or more for a May 2012 election. If a March 2012 primary race or a May 2012 primary runoff goes into a contested recount, then the Travis County voting machines would not be available for the COA May 2012 elections. Austin would be responsible for paying the costs of buy voting machines to replace part or potentially all of the Travis County voting machines. (Or we could just combine all precincts so everyone votes in Allandale, Zilker, and Hyde Park. That could save a lot of money!)
Equally important is the diversity of the electorate that chooses our leaders. Partisan, active voters make up 86.08% of the May electorate. New or casual voters are only 13.92% of the vote in May, and they do not make much of an impact on May elections. In November, on the other hand, partisan, active voters make up only 57.6% of the November electorate. New or casual voters are 42.4% of the vote in November, and they do make a significant impact on November elections.
Call me craaaaazy but I think it's really important that our new and casual voters are given lower barriers to participating in our city elections.
Council Member Bill Spelman, however, does not seem to agree. Spelman, whom you may recall was essentially elected on filing day in 2011, when no one filed to run against him for Place 5, essentially said on the dias today that November voters are simply too overwhelmed to vote for City Council. He also said something about the voters being so distracted by their kids' soccer games or something to care enough to go vote. He seems to think folks currently not voting in municipal elections genuinely don't care enough to do so.
Yet we let these same voters decide the fate of our bond packages (as they did in November 2010, approving the Transportation Bond), and major propositions (as they did in November 2008, voting down “Stop Domain Subsidies”).
In fact, in 2012 it's likely that the November electorate will be voting on a potential combination of public transit bonds, city charter amendments, single member districts, and election reforms. That stuff's actually more complex and nuanced than where the candidates stand on the issues that matter to Austinites.
This seems like a self-interested vote by several elected officials who'd rather preserve the current electoral status quo — and thus their own careers — than expand our municipal election to hundreds of thousands of additional voters. It's shameful. And the arguments from citizens in favor of preserving the May election date — which basically boil down to “we don't want all of those extra, uninformed people voting on our City Council” — is so painfully elitist and conservative, I'm not even sure I have words to describe it, other than to say it seems as far removed from the spirit of what Austin claims and wants to be, it's hard to fathom.
As long as we keep these low-turnout May municipal elections, we're putting the governance of our city into the hands of the very few — voters who tend to be dramatically wealthier, older, whiter, homeowners in precincts that line the MoPac corridor. Voters who have a vastly more personal and/or professional interest in who is on our City Council do not a fair electorate make. The May electorate is not a fair geographic or political representation of our city, and creates a system where some parts of our city are allowed to exert a disproportionate amount of influence on the democratic process at the expense of other parts of our city.
Every single council member who voted against increasing participation in our elections should be ashamed of themselves and their lack of faith that a larger voting public might want to return them to office.
If you're unwilling to campaign to a wider electorate, then don't run for council in a city of nearly 1,000,000 people.
If you think voting's too hard or confusing for The Poors, then call for a test or pass an ordinance to limit it to homeowners or something.
If you're afraid that your ideology towards the issues facing this growing city won't fly in a younger, more ethnically diverse electorate, then reconsider whose viewpoint you really espouse up there on the dias.
And if you don't want to be voted into service by as much of the public as possible, then maybe you just aren't cut out to be a public servant.
So if you think we should have elections that more accurately represent our population, that include more voters, and younger, more diverse ones at that, you might want to reach out to the folks on Council voting for a May election in the next two weeks and tell them to move it to November.
This won't be the last you hear about this on BOR. And if this issue bothers you — which I hope it does, because it's a fundamental discussion of how we elect our leaders — you need to weigh in, not just in the comments here but to our elected officials themselves.