I Think We'll Need A Bigger Ballot Box: Structural Changes to Austin's 2014 City Council Elections

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* 11 will win, but not Will Wynn — he's term-limited out.

The maps are final, the candidate names are starting to circulate, and candidates can begin raising money on May 8, 2014.  

That means it's time to start talking about the 2014 Austin City Council elections!

With a potential 600% increase in voter turnout from the prior May elections on the way, hold on to the nearest hipster's handle-bar mustache, because Austin's municipal electorate is in for a wild ride.

Or maybe not. It's still too soon to tell as candidates wait to announce — and obviously who files for what and how many who's and where will certainly have a major impact on shaping this election cycle — but there are some things we do know based just on the structural changes and constraining factors of Austin City Council elections.

Below the jump, join me for some prognostication about fundraising, outside money, endorsements, changes to the electorate, and what happens after 2014 — spoiler alert: that's when it could get really interesting.At Least Nine New Faces On The Dais

Your current Austin City Council.

First off, most of the current City Council won't be back, and that's not just because they mostly live in the same district. Of the 7 of them, Sheryl Cole, Laura Morrison, Chris Riley, Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo live in District 9. Lee Leffingwell is in District 10 and Mike Martinez is in District 1.

Mayor Leffingwell is term-limited out and is not running again. Cole, Martinez, Morrison, and Spelman are all term-limited out from running for a district seat, but each can run for Mayor, as it's considered a different office. Council Members Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo can both run again, and — as noted above — have been drawn into the same district.

So regardless, even if any of the termed-out members run for Mayor, that means at most, two current council members could return in some form next year. Or they could all run and lose, or not run at all, or be beaten by one of the many past candidates who garnered less than 15% in a previous election, though I find that last scenario as likely as Ted Cruz being elected as Prime Minister of Canada. (Though he's still eligible!)

With 10 districts and one at-large mayor, we'll be looking at at least nine new faces come 2015, maybe more.


Historic Election Turnout Numbers

The biggest change to our electoral process will come in the form of a dramatic increase in voter participation in our municipal elections.

Take a look at historic turnout figures for City of Austin voters in the last 3 May municipal elections and last 3 even-year November general elections (November numbers based on the propositions that were on the City of Austin ballot). I've linked to the PDF from Travis County for easy fact-checking. These numbers include voters in Williamson County precincts contained within the City of Austin and measures all voters who cast a ballot, not turnout in a specific race.

Past City of Austin Voter Election Turnout
November 2012 299,117 May 2012 49,336
November 2010 176,965 May 2011 32,880
November 2008 303,807 May 2009 58,610

Obvious conclusion: many, many more people will vote in November.

Now, as regular readers of this blog are likely aware, I am a pretty strong supporter of increasing municipal turnout. I believe that it can lead to a more inclusive government as — in theory — niche interests of all kinds can no longer exert as much domination over the election results and possibly the issues that are considered at City Hall. This is meant not to knock our current council, but rather to suggest that we're all better off when more people are engaging in municipal government.


Who's In This New Electorate?

We can sum this up as a switch from the older, older, whiter electorate to a newer, younger, more diverse electorate.

Based on the pool of voters who cast a ballot in at least 1 municipal election from 2008 to 2011, and the pool of voters who cast a ballot in one November even-year general election from 2006 to 2010, there's a sizable difference in voters' partisan primary activity and age, as well as geographic representation.

In the old likely city electorate, voters with no partisan primary history made up 13.9% of the electorate, and the median age of all voters was 53.9. In the new likely November electorate, voters with no partisan primary history comprise 42.4% of the electorate, and the median age drops to 45.9. The median age of all registered voters in the City of Austin is somewhere around 44 years.

Geographically, there has always been a high deviation in May election turnout between East vs. Central and West Austin. The May electorate has a higher turnout in Central and West Austin, whereas November elections don't have as much of a deviation between parts of the city. While East Austin still lags by approximately 2.5% in turnout, the gap is vastly smaller and will reverse the history of lower income and minority neighborhoods turning out at a vastly lower rate than the rest of the city for council races — a result caused in part because campaigns frequently did not campaign in these areas. Now, thanks to single member districts, not only will these voters be engaged more deeply in city races, but also will have the opportunity to choose their own local representative.


Money: The Great Limiting Factor

The biggest challenge facing potential City Council candidates, of both the district and mayoral variety, will be fundraising. Austin limits donations to $350 per person or $700 per couple per candidate, and restricts funds from PACs and individuals living outside the City of Austin to $35,000 per candidate for the general election.

A few recent municipal candidates have managed to raise upwards of $250,000 for citywide seats. In 2009, Lee Leffingwell raised $280,000 in his first campaign for Mayor. However, most candidates have loaned their campaigns sizable sums of cash — to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars — to fund campaigns intended to reach approximately 50,000 voters. That's now less than the number of registered voters in the individual district seats.

Complicating matters for the candidates are the new restrictions on bundlers — those individuals that solicit contributions on behalf of their chosen candidates. Previously, bundlers' names were reported on the required campaign finance reports if they collected more than $200 each from 5 individuals, exclusive of fundraising events in an individual's home.

The new rules limit lobbyists to bundling $1,750 per candidate (5 max-out donations) and their co-workers to bundling $3,500 per candidate (10 max-out donations). Clever candidates finance consultants and campaign staffers will still be able to stay organized about who is bundling from whom at what firm or employer, but the rules will make it more logistically difficult to raise funds. Previously, the top bundlers in City Council races could gather together at last $10,000 per candidate. The days of that kind of fat fundraising envelope are over.

Additionally, the pool of City Council donors isn't currently very deep, owing perhaps to the smaller turnout and lack of interest in the elections beyond those with deep personal, political, or professional interests in their outcome.

The past half-dozen municipal election cycles have seen only 1 or 2 contested races raising big bucks, and several snooze-fest elections in which incumbent candidates were just trying to raise enough to pay off past debts and run a shoe-string operation. We're looking at a shift from election cycles in which the entire ballot's worth of candidates raised and spent around $700,000 to one in which that much could conceivably be spent in a single district.

I'm not crying over the logistical challenges posed to lobbyists by the bundler rules, but the larger point here is that it will be very difficult for 11 races' worth of candidates to raise sufficient funds to run competent, professional campaigns.

Now, we can all decry money in politics, but I hope we all agree that campaign workers deserve to make a decent wage (maybe one that works out to half of the federal minimum hourly wage when all is said and done?) and campaign block walkers have to be able to pay rent and afford food. The need to communicate with a larger electorate that has less knowledge of municipal issues will cost money, whether it's spent on television ads, direct mail, social media, paid canvassers, or enough coffee, pizza, and printer paper (to say nothing of printer toner — it can cost three $40 cartridges to canvass 78704 alone!) to provide for an army of volunteers.

It is already hard enough to raise funds to fuel a professional municipal campaign, and most of our Council had to loan themselves sizable chunks of change to fund basic operations. Expect to see that trend of self-funding to continue. In theory, there is nothing currently stopping Lance Armstrong, for instance, from dropping $2 million to try and win buy the Mayor's race. Well, other than the whole doping-scandal-public-disgrace thing. I digress.


Outside Money To The Rescue?

Money in elections — much like cold air in a drafty Austin apartment during this unsportsmanlike weather — always finds a way to seep in somehow. With candidates hampered by fundraising limits, expect to see a rise in independent expenditures the likes of which we have not seen in recent memory. So-called “Specific Purpose” PACs are not limited to the $350-a-head fundraising limits. In the past, organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to the Austin Police Association and EMS PACs to the Real Estate Council of Austin have spent sizable sums on elections in our lower-turnout environment.

I expect to see more PACs and more outside money trying to make up the financial shortfalls faced by their chosen candidates, and I'm already hearing rumors of organizations trying to line up “slates” of candidates in each district that they can throw their independent financial support behind. Additionally, clever 501(c)4's might be able to walk the line between “informing” and “advocating” to throw even more money into the mix.

Of course, strategic coordination between campaigns and outside PACs is strictly illegal, but the City ethics commission has historically had little power to enforce these rules even if it's clear that they've been violated. These PACs do have to file financial disclosure forms with the City Clerk, so there will be a way to track who's spending the big outside money.


The Power of Endorsements

With candidates limited in terms of the funds to get their message out, we may well see an increase in the importance of endorsements from established organizations to help the new-to-municipal-elections voters make sense of the sea of candidates.

(And yes, there will be a sea of candidates — some people have prognosticated that it may go as high as 100 names on the ballot, and with 11 races, 40 seems like a very conservative guesstimate.)

Where do voters look to tell them who to vote for? Endorsements from the Austin-American Statesman and Austin Chronicle are obvious answers, along with established organizations ranging from political clubs to environmental groups to labor unions. Additionally, as noted above, some of these organizations have a history of spending funds in support of their endorsed candidates.

It's possible that endorsements by trusted groups will carry more weight than in previous elections, simply as voters — upwards of 150,000 voters who have never cast a ballot in a City Council election before — try to evaluate their choices. But again — here's where my City Council crystal ball gets murky — it's tough to know in the individual district races which groups may carry the most weight. Will voters in Southwest Austin care more about the opinion of the Circle C Area Democrats or the Austin Chronicle if endorsements are split? And in races where there are multiple strong, qualified candidates, will any of them be able to garner a substantially influential slate of endorsements in the first place?

For what it's worth, I've seen reams of polling on the merits of Endorsement A vs. Endorsement B in persuading voters, and it seems to be pretty context-specific in terms of what matters to which voters and when. The key factor will be whether or not any candidate can manage to garner a critical mass of endorsements and then afford to let voters know about them.


Who All Is Going to Run, Anyways?

Oh right, that. As outlined above, most of the council is term limited out. At this point we're within thirteen months of the new council being sworn in, so the Texas Constitution's “resign to run” law isn't a factor — our officeholders can announce their plans. (I'd be surprised if any did so before the March primaries conclude.)

In the meantime it is legal for candidates to file a treasurer designation with the city and to spend their own money, which they must report. Candidates can spend unlimited amounts of their own money, though they must report it, and expenses over a certain amount trigger faster reporting deadlines.

In the meantime, names are already being whispered (or shouted) about those not currently on the dais, from all parts of town. Michael King helpfully played The Great Mentioner last month and ran some lists of names that are currently circulating. There are no major surprises there for City Hall observers, though again with the filing fee a mere $350, there will be few obstacles for candidates who want to run for office (other than the high potential for public humiliation, but that never really seems to deter those truly hell-bent on seeing their name on a ballot).

Many City Hall watchers have theorized that past candidates who lost might make a bid for a smaller district, hoping to find more favor with 70,000 neighbors than 50,000 citywide voters. It's also worth noting that many of the names currently being discussed were heavily involved in some aspect of the municipal election reform process, from serving on the charter review committee that proposed most of the amendments on the 2012 ballot to campaigning for one of the plans to advocating in front of the Independent Citizens' Redistricting Commission. And this includes folks for and against all steps of this process. (Note also that members of the ICRC itself are forbidden to run for 10 years after serving, though I'd expect a potential 1st amendment challenge to that some day.)


By The Way, We'll Have a Bunch of Runoffs

It's likely that with crowded fields, insufficiently funded campaigns, and historically high turnout for municipal races, we'll have a lot of runoffs to contend with when the dust settles after November 4th, 2014. Now, while the general election should see record turnout for a municipal race, it will remain to be seen if the ensuing runoff contests do as well.

Let's look at some historical turnout figures:

Turnout in Past Local Run-off Elections
June 2011 Municipal Runoff 42,633 (9.58%)
June 2010 AISD Runoff 9,470 (2.52%)
June 2008 Municipal Runoff 21,678 (5.00%)

Runoffs are historically low-turnout affairs. More people go to a home UT football game than vote in a local runoff.

Perhaps a more apt point of comparison comes in the form of the 2008 Democratic primary, in which 186,669 voters in Travis County cast a ballot, equal to 33.58% turnout. There was a countywide runoff for District Attorney five weeks later, in which 29,548 Travis County voters (5.32%) cast a ballot. (Democrats and people who didn't vote at all in the runoff were eligible to vote in the Democratic primary runoff; Republican primary voters were not; I have no idea how many people voted in the 2008D runoff who skipped the primary but if anyone sends me that data I'll update this.) That's a drop of 84%.

Who will come back for the runoffs? If there is a mayoral runoff, will that impact the district runoffs and vice versa? Will the surge in turnout to help elect Wendy Davis have an impact in who returns in December or January, or doesn't? What if the runoff is held over winter break and Austin's sizable student population isn't here for it?

One caveat: candidates are each allowed another $350 from each of their donors in a runoff, and another $23,000 in PAC and out-of-city contributions. So if any generous donors still have money left in their wallets, they won't for long.


Oh, and What About this Other Thing?

Simply because y'all have to get back to whatever you were doing eventually I won't dwell on the host of other factors going into this election, but here are just a few issues to turn around in your brains:

    * Rail: What's the impact of also putting rail on the ballot, both in terms of support for rail from candidates and increasing turnout for or against it?

    * Women: With Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte leading the Democratic ticket, will that translate into higher female voter turnout, and how will that impact down-ballot races?

    * Republicans: The Travis County Republican Party has long been agitating for increased Ok, any representation on Council. Candidates won't have party affiliation on the City ballot. Might “progressive” Austin elect a Republican to our Council? Or… three?

    * Drop-off voters: Will people even vote in these races at all, or will there be tremendous drop-off voting in municipal races, which will be at the bottom of a loooong ballot? Traditionally there has been high drop-off in November for the City propositions (more on that another day).

Feel free to weigh in on these issues in the comments, or raise your own confounding issues.


Then Comes 2016, And That's When It Gets Really Interesting

So, 11 people will get elected and set forth on governing our city, hopefully with the needs and concerns of their new, larger electorate in mind. Hopefully, higher turnout and greater voter participation will result in more people weighing in on matters at City Hall, new issues considered on the dais, and greater participation writ large.

By the time that all gets figured out in 2016, half of the council will be up for re-election, determined by the time-honored random draw. That's right: in 2016, only half of the districts will be able to vote, to keep or sweep their council member. How will half of Austin react to not being able to vote for City Council, after everyone got to vote in 2014, and prior to that everyone could vote on every citywide seat?

Thinking long term, as more citizens participate in choosing their municipal government, how many will grow frustrated with an individual council member's ability to affect change in our current system — or even the ability of a majority of council members to affect change, due to Austin's council-manager form of government?


Future Charter Revisions — Including A Change in Form of Government?

Already, individuals have identified some issues with the charter amendments passed in 2012, including the strict limits on who does not qualify for the redistricting commission (hint: not enough Hispanics, Asians, or young people, and no one who was ever paid $4 to block walk for a campaign), and who does (hint: leaders of very influential citizen organizations with vested interests in how the lines are drawn, who have simply never dirtied their hands with money). We may see minor revisions to address some of the problems that emerged after the current amendments were passed (again, just speculation on my part).

Bigger picture, however, I wouldn't be surprised to see a “Strong Mayor” election on the ballot in the next decade. Now, I'm prognosticating purely from my own sense of how the new electorate will react to our new council. But I think that a more engaged citizenry will grow increasingly frustrated with the way in which the City Manager's office can stymie progress on critical issues at City Hall. With a larger council — and a growing city — it's possible that Austinites may want to give their elected officials more control than simply directing the City Manager's office to carry out policy and then harangue them until it gets done.



So, for all of you just skimming to the bottom, here are the key takeaways:

Candidates will be hampered by the $350-per-donor contribution limits, which may give an advantage to wealthy self-funders and those with support of outside organizations that mount independent expenditures. Trusted endorsing organizations may carry more weight in persuading voters looking for valid information on candidates, though it can be tough to prognosticate which endorsements will matter and to whom. The ballot will likely be very crowded, many races will go to run-offs with uncertain turnout, and then — after all of that — the 11 people we elect will actually get down to the business of governing for two years, until half of them have to run again and the other half of the city electorate gets ticked that they don't get a vote. Oh, and it all might cause enough tumult that City of Austin voters decide to change forms of government to a Strong Mayor system.

Regardless, we're in for a wild ride over the next year, as candidates begin to emerge and garner support, and upwards of 150,000 Austin voters get ready to cast a ballot for City Council for the first time — and again, that's if they bother to vote in these races at all.  

In the meantime, I welcome your questions, comments, and / or hate mail on all of this via Twitter and email.


Update 1.7.14 @ 6:41pm: More potential candidate names in The Austin Chronicle today.  


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.


  1. No Way

    “$700,000 to one in which that much could conceivably be spent in a single district.”

    No Way, not in a single district race, maybe the Mayor's race, but probably not that either.

    Good article, though.

  2. Great Piece
    Your question about drop off voters in 2008 Primary to Runoff made me dust off my voter file.

    Note: It's a given that as voters move the data gets slightly fuzzy.

    What I found a little revealing is that of the 186,669 voters quoted as voting in 2008, only about 158,000 are still registered in Travis County. Some of that loss if from moves out of the county, but some of it has to be from the suspense purges as well. Similarly, of the 29,548 runoff voters, only about 26,500 remain.

    So that said… just under 1,000 (962) people voted in the 2008 Dem runoff who had not voted in the initial primary- so about 3.5%. And somehow, according to the Travis voter file, 41 people somehow managed to violate the law and vote in the Republican Primary AND the Democratic Runoff. I can only guess that's from oversight by election judges or data that wasn't updated from the primary. The reverse doesn't exist in 2008 because there wasn't a GOP runoff in Travis County that year.

  3. Dropoff

    Past City of Austin Voter Election Turnout

    November 2012 299,117 May 2012 49,336

    November 2010 176,965 May 2011 32,880

    November 2008 303,807 May 2009 58,610

    So that is a 6x increase in turnout to the Nov. election.

    If you check those Nov. elections, they have a 1/6th dropoff from the top of the ballot to the bottom of the ballot.  So guessing a 250,000 Citywide turnout in the City races in 2014.  That is less than half of the eligible voters citywide, in some districts it will be well under half of the voting age population.  Some of these districts have more than 60,000 eligible voters and some of them have less than 40,000 eligible voters.  That is for the Nov. election.

    The Runoff will likely be in December.  The Councilmembers are suppose to take office in January, so a Runoff in January would be inappropriate.  I would guess the 1st or 2nd week of December for the Runoff, so students will be in town.  What's the turnout likely to be for the Runoff?  Will vary substantially by district.  Areas of town that vote regularly in City elections will have higher turnout but still some dropoff from Nov., areas that traditionally have not voted heavily in City elections are likely to have a substantial dropoff in turnout from Nov. to Dec. 2014.  I might guess as low as 20-25% voter turnout in some of these districts (1-4) for the Runoff and as high as 50% turnout in some of the others (8 & 10) for the Runoff.


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