A Vote Against Democracy in Austin

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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.  

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About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.

21 Comments

  1. Short sighted.
    This is short sighted for a number of reasons. Clearly people who count on city voters fear an undereducated democratic wave. But there are ways this could play out that would be very favorable for them.

    But why risk it right?

    The number one reason why I think this is very short sighted, voting is a habit. We should take this opportunity and educate many, general election only voters, on the importance of their local vote. Our turnout for city elections is pathetic. And the local level is where a lot of the politics of change can begin. We should embrace this opportunity to increase our civic participation.

    I think folks should email our city council and express their concerns.

  2. A vote for Democracy in Austin

    The Council Majority did the right thing in voting for a May city election.

    With all due respect, it seems a bit disingenuous to worry about spending $1 million to pay for a May election, which conforms to the City Charter, when some Council members (and their supporters) didn't hesitate to vote millions in tax benefits to luxury hotels or to authorize $25 million in state funds to subsidize a race track.

    As a Democratic political consultant, a November election would benefit me, but I think it would be a serious mistake for the city. It has been presented, rather self righteously, as a move to open the process and make it more democratic. However there is strong reason to believe it would actually narrow the sphere of democratic debate and concentrate power in fewer hands.

    There are many reasons why the decision to keep a May election was the right one.  

    —Many voters regard it as undemocratic and wrong for incumbent office holders to arbitrarily extend their term of office without voter approval. This could become an issue against any Council Member who voted to do that, and rightly so. After all, if you disagree with the views of an incumbent, what entitles them to a free ride and six extra months of power to vote against your interests? That's democracy?

    —City issues and candidates would be totally drowned out by national and state campaigns in the summer and fall of 2012. Every campaign professional in Austin knows this. To pretend otherwise would be dishonest.  There would be almost no news coverage of city candidates.  Advertising would be far more expensive.  City candidates' messages would be lost in the blizzard of mail and tv ads from better financed state and federal campaigns.  Citizen forums, quite important in city elections, would be overwhelmed.

    —A November 2012 election would be more of an insider's game, not less.  It would hand more power to a small group of elite political insiders: a) the special interest lobbyists who fund campaigns, and b) the political operatives who influence local political party and club endorsements.   This is inevitable because the election will become vastly more expensive and vastly more partisan, as I will explain in detail.    

    —A November 2012 city election would hurt democracy, not help it, in spite of drawing more voters.  The number of voters would be far higher; but they would not be turning out because city elections were on the ballot.  In fact, due to the well documented phenomenon of “ballot drop off,” tens of thousands of them probably wouldn't even vote in the city contest. Again, every political professional in Austin knows this, and to pretend otherwise is foolish. For the voters who did choose to vote for city candidates,  their chance to be well informed, to hear meaningful public discussion,  to consider alternatives, and to participate in a debate about city issues would be much, much less.  

    —A November 2012 date would automatically make city campaigns far more expensive, while making it very difficult to recruit and organize grass roots volunteer efforts.   City candidates would have to compete for attention with scores of other campaigns at every level, trying to reach a vastly larger Presidential year electorate, while paying for more expensive TV time and  sending mailers to thousands of extra voters.  Field, mail and TV would all become far more expensive, and potential volunteers would be siphoned off by state and federal races. For some reason this is never mentioned by the people who claim a November date would produce a great advance in civic interest.

    —A November election would give incumbents an unfair advantage,  even bigger than the one they have now, since it would become vastly more expensive and far more difficult for challengers to become known.

    Here's a little more detail on these points:

    1. Many voters will think it is wrong to use a mere change in state election schedules as an excuse to arbitrarily extend incumbents terms of office by half a year—in violation of  historic practice and the City Charter Council Members are sworn to uphold. It would be a subversion of voters' rights and the rule of law.   In America voters are the only persons entitled to make decisions on how long an incumbent remains in office.  It would be surprising if challengers did not make it an issue  against any incumbent who voted to extend their own term. If you disagree with the views of an incumbent, why on earth would you give them an extra half year to vote against your interests?  

    Even Rudy Guiliani, at the height of his popularity as Mayor of New York in the months after 9/11, failed when he tried to get an agreement to extend his term an extra three months “in order to ease transition in a time of crisis.”   He failed in the face of wide spread public criticism that called his move an “extra legal maneuver.”

    2.  Staging our city election simultaneously with the national election will wipe out any chance for real debate and discussion of city issues.  There is a physical limit to how much attention voters and news media can give to politics at one time. By next fall news media and commercial airwaves will be totally dominated by state and national campaigns.   Austin airwaves will be saturated with  political advertising costing millions of dollars.  It will be almost impossible for city candidates to compete for news space or to be noticed amidst the blizzard of competing ads and direct mail at the state and federal level. Think about how hard it is to get news media attention or to pay for TV time for Council races held in May.  In November it will be ten times worse and  three times more expensive.  City candidates will be competing with Presidential, statewide and county politics—all in a highly partisan atmosphere.  Challengers will face an almost impossible task against incumbents.

    3.  The argument has been made that November will be more “democratic” because more people will be voting.  It would be truer to say that more uninformed people will vote, though this would not be the voters' fault. It would be the fault of combining too many elections with too many candidates at too many levels at the same time. People are not computers with infinite capacity on their hard drives.  They can only take so much input.  As a practical matter, it will be impossible for voters who follow the Presidential or state campaigns to become adequately informed about city issues during the national election season.  For all the reasons previously mentioned, voters simply will not have sufficient opportunity or time to inform themselves.  Further, in partisan elections most voters use the simple shortcut given by party identification and  they choose Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green.  But city elections are non-partisan, which makes it far more important to learn about the views and backgrounds of individual candidates.   Real democracy depends on informed citizens who have a chance to educate themselves.  In the confused frenzy of  November, most voters will hear very little city debate and get very little information on city issues.

    4.  Some claim that a city election in November, because it draws a larger number of voters, will be more open and less of an “insiders' game.” On the contrary, a November election would hand more power to an even smaller group of political insiders: a) the special interest lobbyists who fund campaigns, and b) the political operatives who influence local Democratic and Republican endorsements.   This is inevitable because the election will become vastly more expensive and vastly more partisan.  The need for extra funding in a race where you have to communicate with thousands of new voters is obvious.  Therefore, special interest funders—lobbyists and their commercial clients— will inevitably loom even larger in importance, as will political operatives eager to expand their own power.  For a big majority of  voters  partisanship will be the main point of reference in their decision making, regardless of whether they are voting for a city, state, or federal office.  Research shows that partisan identification is the most important predictor of  voting.   Since the vast majority of November voters cast ballots on a partisan basis, the endorsement of local political party groups will become supremely important. It's always important to get political endorsements, of course, but in a November contest getting on a political slate card could be life or death.   Neighborhood, environmental, social groups, business organizations, unions and other community groups who play a role in normal city elections will be blown away by the partisan factor.  Council Candidates wlll not be identified by party on the ballot, of course, but everything will depend on getting party endorsements, being included on party slates, and communicating partisanship to the voters. Since the city is heavily Democratic, any prominent Democratic Party office holder at the state or county level who wanted to jump into a contest for an open city council seat might have an advantage in partisan name ID and partisan contacts, whether they had any background in city issues or not.  There are a lot of Democratic office holders I could vote for in a city race; but I would prefer that they earn the office in a normal Austin election where they engaged in lengthy public debate on city issues.)  

    Respectfully,

    Dean Rindy

    • In case anyone is unaware
      Rindy is the media consultant for Morrison, Tovo, and Cole as well, I believe. His candidates have a vested interest in keeping this election in May, when their smaller voter base can wield more influence.

      (Spelman didn't need TV or mail because he was unopposed. That's right, the voters never really had a choice between Spelman and anyone else since he ran uncontested in 2009.)

      • vested interest
        Katherine, I'm trying to keep politics out of this conversation because I choose to believe that the 7 members of council tend to vote in city's best interest.  But if you want to take it there, then be sure to mention that Leffingwell and Martinez stood to gain from a November election just as much as the others stand to gain from a May election.  It's only fair that you lambast everyone equally, not just folks on the “other side.”  (This is a recurrent problem with BOR….)

        And by the way, anyone could have run against Spelman in 2009.  Just because no one did, that's not his fault.  And he did have a tough race in 1997, went to a run off and won.  So it's not like he's avoided the voters.  It's a weird implication you've got going on.

        ~barksdale english

        • re:
          If someone “stands to gain” from a broader and more diverse group of voters deciding their electoral fate, maybe it's a sign they have been working for the entire city, as opposed to appealing to small group of people who usually determine May municipal elections.

  3. Informed voting is important, not just voting in general
    “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”).”

    This is a better argument for moving those bond packages and propositions away from the November election than anything else.

    Many of the points I were going to make were already made by Dean.  City Council races will be drowned out.  During local may elections, it's the only thing on the ballot, the media focuses on it, activists focus on it, political organizations focus on it, and voters who care to pay attention focus on it.  They are the only one demanding TV time and mailers and all the rest of it.  This allows for a better, more meaningful conversation about the issues in play and the candidates.

    I would love to see more participation from groups that are historically underrepresented in local issues.  But that's more than just voting, it's paying attention, participating in the process and making your voice heard.

    Higher turnout in city council races would be wonderful but it has to be for the right reasons, because more people care and are informed, not just because it's on the bottom of the ballot and more people vote in it just to vote, and not because they are actually paying any more attention.

  4. Why is empowering low-information partisans bad, exactly?
    No one seems to dispute that the number of people voting for local office holders would increase if we reduce the overall number of elections and coordinate with federal.  This finding is consistent with comparative polisci research (for example, Wattenberg, 2002). So if the problem is turnout, then fewer, coordinated elections is the solution.

    However, those advocating against fewer, coordinated elections raise the concern that the participants will be (1) partisans (2) served by a poorer marketplace of ideas that is constrained by a set of (3) insider oligarchs.

    Personally, I find partisanship to be a pretty good heuristic; if a city council candidate is a Republican, that's pretty helpful to know.  Amidst a see of Democrats, I would seek supplementary information.

    Which gets to number (2)…it seems that the existing highly engaged base of 'May' voters will still create demand for locally-focused information. The locally focused orgs (e.g. ANC) will still demand elected accountability. So, the number of forums and questionnaires will be the same; maybe the Statesman runs fewer stories, but the Chronicle, the Post, and the bloggers will still generate a lot of content that the existing 'May' base can find.

    As for (3), in a sea of Democrats, it seems that the endorsements of neighborhood groups, environmentalists, labor, etc. retain or even gain in value as candidate differentiation. It also seems that inevitably, the long-term equilibrium is for these organized interests to seek to leverage the party organizations if they indeed become dominant. I don't see how the status quo is especially unfriendly to money vis-a-vis grassroots organizations.  

    Sure, I agree with critics that the new median voter might be less knowledgeable about the intricacies, but again why is that bad? Why not take it to its logical conclusion and have our public administrators appointed by expert panels? The new lower info voters will just freeride on the high information civic enthusiasts, which happens to be the status quo already.

    Finally, the status quo is not going to transform existing general election only voters into muni voters.  On the other hand, the coordinated election will lead to at least some increase in municipal engagement from the general election only voters. I guess I am just not that pessimistic about the long-term chance of a combined failure by media, existing organized groups, and whatever new policy entrepreneurs emerge to help the new, broader electorate more or less accurately translate their policy preferences into elected officials.

    Nothing here is intended as snark.  I am genuinely curious and appreciative of others' viewpoints given the unique contours of Austin's real-world local politics.

  5. Great debate
    This debate raises hard questions about tradeoffs between the democratic values of participation versus information (as well as conflict of interest issues of  officials determining the rules for their own elections). Personally I agree that 8-10 percent turnout is pathetic and that we should be doing more to increase participation in local elections. Arguing to restrict the local electorate to only the most informed citizens leaves a bad taste. But at the same time I can understand the fear of local issues getting swept away in the frenzy of national elections. Many thanks to Katherine for reporting on this.  

  6. Why not seperate out judicial races then?
    The “local issues getting drowned out” argument against moving council elections to Nov. seems particularly unconvincing to me. As it stands, all different levels of offices have to compete for the voter's attention – and yes, that can lead to down-ballot dropoff as Dean points out. But other than keeping the status quo, why privilege city races by being separated out from the rest of the un-sexy races? I want more voters to be knowledgeable to state issues, but the solution to that is state candidates learning how to speak voters better (not necessarily a function of money), not having a different election of state offices. Voter bandwidth and candidate funding are always challenges – but let's not let them to excuses to greater participation.  

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