The Austin Chronicle

Voting Turnout Bad, But How Bad?

By Richard Whittaker, December 10, 2014, 12:00pm, Newsdesk

Comparing election turnout, year on year, is part statistics, part voodoo. It's basically entrail-reading, but if anyone was expecting some divine forces to boost voter participation in Austin's run-off elections, they better sacrifice some more goats.

After nine days of early voting, turnout has inched up to a dismal 6.11%.

By any objective measure, those are lousy numbers. After all, every single resident of Travis County is eligible to vote in at least one race - Austin Community College board of trustees place 2. Every Austinite can add the mayor's race to that, plus most city residents have the Austin ISD At-Large Place 9 race to mull as well. That's the bare minimum. Depending on which district you live in, then there could be another AISD race, plus a council run-off. That means everyone in Travis County has at least one and up to five run off races to be decided on the Dec. 16 ballot.

And yet, only 33,751 of the county's 552,192 registered voters have bothered turning up (which raises the eternal question, why bother registering in the first place? It's the participatory politics equivilent of getting in line at the grocery, dropping your basket and walking away).

But how bad, in comparitive terms, is this turnout? With three days of early voting left to go, a generous estimation is that it may reach 10%. Let's go high, and say that number doubles on election day, and there's 20% voter engagement.

Now, the problem is that there is no accurate, comparable historical benchmark election against which to measure that number. This is the first election cycle with congressional, state, city, and local education districts on the November ballot. Previously, the local races were in May, so having a November mayoral race is unprecedented. Moreover, there have been no December run offs in Travis County in living political memory (or at least since the Travis County Election Division website's historical record start in 1996). So there's no numbers to compare turnout against.

So let's take some quasi-comparable elections:

2014 first round: Nov. 4, 2014: 270.005 votes cast, 41.38% participation.

Last November election: Nov. 5, 2013, State constitutional propositions: 85,005 votes cast 13.75% participation.

Last mayoral election: May 12, 2012: Lee Leffingwell versus Brigid Shea Versus Clay Dafoe: 48,882 votes cast, 10.7% participation.

Last council run off: June 18, 2012, Kathie Tovo versus Randi Shade: 42,633 votes cast, 9.58% participation.

Last November off-year election: Nov. 2, 2010: 240,745 votes cast, 39.86% participation.

The big takeaway from all this is that turnout in Travis County is abysmal in most circumstances. However, it seems like this December run off is unlikely to break that trend. Whether that's due to voter burnout, a lack of information that there's even an election on Dec. 16, or the simple fact that it's so close to the Holidays, there'll be a lot of ruminating going on once all the result are canvassed.

However, there may be some wisdom to be garnered from comparing the 2014 and 2010 November elections. The headliners - the governor and other state races - remained the same, but 2014 added the AISD and council races into the mix. However, there was only a 2% bump in participation. Moving council to November means that those races get to share in the bigger November turnout, but there seems to have been little resultant increase in those November numbers by adding these races to the ballot.

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