TDH: 9/23/11

November spawned a monster: Split council keeps May vote

Don't touch that dial!
Don't touch that dial! (Photo by John Anderson)

It looks like May elections are here to stay, at least for now.

Yesterday, City Council voted 4-3 to go forward with a May contest, despite warnings from Travis County clerk Dana Debeauvoir it would be “far less confusing for voters, and far less challenging” to move to November than to aim for a May contest.

The change to November was allowed, and arguably necessitated, by SB 100, a state law that rearranges federal primaries, potentially clustering elections impossibly close together. Debeauvoir emphasized the council, not the county clerk, set policy in such matters, but under somewhat leading questioning from Mayor Lee Leffingwell (a November advocate), she voiced her own support for November from a logistical standpoint.

The politics of when to hold an election have become inseparable from the policy. with many observers noting Leffingwell and Mike Martinez stand a better chance in a high-turnout November election rather than a May election – which, with their lower-turnout, are more winnable for candidates backed by neighborhood associations, environmental groups and their members that comprise the 10% or so of Austinites that consistently turn out for such contests.

Indeed, the specter of the unwashed masses heading to the polls come November loomed in the background of the debate. Dean Rindy, a political consultant recently seen working on Kathie Tovo’s campaign, circulated a letter to council stating, among other concerns, that “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. [emphasis TDH.] … Real democracy depends on informed citizens who have a chance to educate themselves.”

Such lines of thought largely emerged on the dais only to be swat down, with proponents of keeping the vote in May arguing a change would go against the spirit of the City Charter, a document Tovo noted she had recently “sworn an oath to support.” Sheryl Cole emphasized the same points, arguing to put the change to voters. But Bill Spelman didn’t get the memo, instead saying that "By shoehorning ourselves" in November into low-information voters' lives – which are seemingly all-consumed with getting kids to soccer practice – "I don’t think we’re doing them any favors."

Leffingwell crouched his argument in economic and fairness terms, simply stating at one point the city would be “paying more money to have fewer voters" in May elections, adding "That just doesn't seem right." But it was Mike Martinez that went to the mattresses, arguing the rhetoric from political consultants against involving “uninformed” voters in city elections mirrored the arguments used to exclude women and minorities from voting last century. “I don't see how I can sit up here and disenfranchise several hundred thousand people,” he said. “… There will be less women that vote in May… less African Americans, less Hispanics, and less members of lower socio-economic status." He also alluded to the fact that “uninformed” voters had previously voted in November on charter amendments and bond projects, an argument others were also seen making Thursday.

But in the end, the votes weren’t there. Laura Morrison’s substitute motion to proceed with a May election carried 4-3, Morrison, Tovo, Spelman and Cole voting aye, Leffingwell, Martinez and Chris Riley nay. However, since the motion couldn’t muster a 5-2 majority, it only passed on first reading, requiring two more votes to be codified – although it’s unlikely minds will change much before council’s next meeting in October.

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