The Electoral Collage

Single-Member Debate

Single-member districts have been the great white whale of modern Austin politics. On three different occasions, most recently in 1994, Austin voters have been asked to adopt a single-member system and have said no, though by progressively narrower margins.

To many progressives, the failure of single-member districts was symptomatic of the Bad Guys' hold on power. More specifically, the point of single-member was to give communities of color an opportunity to elect their own representatives, thus dispensing with the "gentleman's agreement" under which Places 5 and 6 on the council were informally reserved, respectively, for Mexican-American and African-American candidates. Since many of the winners -- especially in Place 6 -- did not in fact win among "their" Eastside constituencies, it seemed that single-member, besides being worthy on principle, would crumble the marriages of convenience between Eastside and west side elites who together thwarted the progressive agenda.

But after the 1997 elections, this Manichean view of Austin politics got tossed flat on its ass. First, Gus Garcia, who never much fit the theory in the first place, made history by taking an Anglo council seat. Then Anglo liberal Bill Spelman beat three Hispanic candidates for the Hispanic seat with the support of Hispanic activists. Then, Eastside African-American voters confounded progressives by voting for decidedly nonprogressive Eric Mitchell, who, like preceding Eastside favorites, lost citywide.

Overarching all the ethnic variables was the fact that, with the ascension of the Green Machine, Austin had a council that was ideologically more unified than it had ever been in the Bad Old Days, and it was heading in a direction the progressives wanted. So single-member districts have lost much of their appeal, just as term limits became far less sexy once the people who espoused them found themselves in office.

"The folks who are, you might say, the key players in electing the City Council -- the neighborhood activists, environmentalists, the progressive coalition -- are very happy with what they have," says Garcia, who has long been Austin's highest-profile advocate for a single-member system. "With the annexations and the [Chad] Crow campaign, they're saying, 'We could bring somebody like him to the council, and we're scared of him and don't want him there, and if single-member districts will bring him there I don't want to do that.'"

But that is exactly what the current Charter Revision Committee was mandated to do -- in the words of its official statement of purpose, "To advise the City Council whether the City Charter should be amended to provide for changes in the method of election of council members, with emphasis on election from single-member districts."

"It may seem strange, but we've never specifically discussed whether Austin needs to change," says committee chair Barbara Hankins, "because we wanted to educate ourselves first before we started talking about specific options. But I think it's fair to say that virtually everybody sees significant problems with the current system."

As Garcia's comments imply, the problems are no longer the same ones, or at least not concerning the same people, as they were in previous rounds of single-member talk. The Austin minority group most likely now to benefit from a district system is not black or Hispanic but Republican, and converting to a single-member system would quickly disassemble the Green Machine, both by adding conservatives from the city's fringes and by restricting the high-turnout central-city voting bloc, which now gets to choose all seven members, to one or two seats.

Meanwhile, the ethnic minority communities themselves have lost some of their ardor for single-member districts; indeed, the ostensibly most radical Eastside voices, such as El Concilio and the Black Citizens' Task Force, have never favored districts. Those who once did espouse the system have begun to see thXe demographic writing on the wall. "When we came into this, we were looking at ensuring racial and ethnic representation on the council," says Charter Revision Committee member Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "But it became clear that you can't do that any better than we do now because of the way the population has dispersed -- you would need 20 members." (That would make each district comparable in size to a ZIP code, and it's possible that, in the 2000 census, Austin will not have a single ZIP code that is predominantly black.) "So we began to focus on just general representation."

Even with all the risks it poses to the Greens, the progressive council originally wanted single-member districts to be on the same November 1997 ballot as the victorious Austinites for a Little Less Corruption campaign finance ordinance. When this proved impossible to pull off, they appointed the Charter Revision Committee, whose work got delayed further by ALLC's triumph, since we can only amend the City Charter every three years. Single-member is still on the stove, if on the back burner, because it has benefits beyond its appeal to principle. "Elections have become very, very expensive to the candidates," says Hankins, "and there's a feeling that the $100 limit [set with ALLC] will create problems to the challengers in particular." It certainly created problems for most of the challengers last month, and many of them made single-member districts part of their platforms.

Hankins adds that both citizens and incumbents have told the committee that "the city has grown to the point where it's difficult for individual council members to keep up with all the local issues. They used to know everything that was going on, and now they can't keep up any more." The feeling is mutual, as Harrington notes. "The overall concern that everybody has is making sure that all areas of the city are represented on the council -- not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but to ensure comparable city services. People seem to want a system where peopleare in place with specific responsibility to specific areas, to keep the city focused on those issues."


Mixed Systems

The mixed feelings about single-member districts have spawned interest in a mixed electoral system, where powerful communities of interest could still elect at-large reps to share power with district reps. "I think that a number of members of the committee who have had some reservations about a pure single-member system, for one reason or another, were impressed with the mixed system," says Hankins. Over the last few months, the committee has held focus groups with Austinites and heard presentations from other Texas cities -- including Houston and Corpus Christi, both of which have mixed systems.

To be fair, not all the reservations about pure single-member are born of latter-day desire to keep the Green Machine well-oiled. "When looking at the old ward systems," says Hankins, "there was a fear that under them, parochial interests would hold sway over those of the city as a whole." Indeed, it was just such concerns that led forward-thinking city leaders in Austin, and across America, to abandon district systems early in this century -- to quote former City Council Member and UT political science prof Stuart MacCorkle, "It was felt that small districts would only produce small men to lead them."

Harrington, for one, has become at least a tentative convert to the mixed system -- "It seems to accomplish requiring attentiveness to individual areas, and the idea that overall representation is good, [while retaining] the general welfare of the city as an issue." The enthusiasm of the reps from Houston and Corpus -- including such people as Rice professor Chandler Davidson, a party in the long-running voting-rights lawsuit against the city of Houston that produced its mixed system -- "has impressed us greatly," says Harrington. "The way it has played out has been much, much better than he anticipated."

But not everyone is sold -- "I've never heard anyone talk about Corpus Christi as a model for anything," says Garcia, "and I'm not sure how well Houston's system works when you've got council members being indicted," referring to last year's bribery scandals that sent city officials to the big house. But then again, Garcia notes, no electoral system seems to be a safeguard against municipal corruption, a disease from which Austin has long been blessedly spared. "Back home in Laredo, we had single-member districts, but the machinery controlled all the precincts and the mayor. It was about the most corrupt system there was, and ultimately the mayor went to jail." He adds that the Austin ISD board comes from single-member districts, and "they've been blasted in the most awful terms, and some people are saying they were better off when they were at-large." (Garcia was president of the AISD board back when they were at-large.) "What advantage would the city have, people argue, if AISD is any example?"

The most common objection to mixed systems is that at-large members become more important than their district-elected comrades. In some cities, notably New Orleans (speaking of municipal corruption), this pecking order is enshrined in the city charter, but Harrington notes that "it doesn't seem to have happened" in Houston or Corpus, "though everyone sort of assumed it would." Other cities have structural tweaks to keep the at-large members from becoming lords of the council -- for example, requiring them to likewise live in specific districts, as is done in Atlanta (where they represent super-districts called "posts") and Kansas City (where each of the six districts has two council members, one elected by the district, the other elected by the city at large).

Systems as complicated as Kansas City's will likely have a tough time being adopted by Austin voters, accustomed to a system whose one virtue is simplicity -- no maps and no math. (This would be trebly true of preferential or cumulative voting, even if the Texas Election Code didn't prohibit them.) "I view this as being an incremental, one-step-at-a-time process in terms of bringing the voters along and helping people getting more effective representation," says Harrington. "It's very hard to sell people on a single new idea, let alone a complicated set of new ideas."


Size Is Everything

The one change that seems inevitable is adding at least two members to the council. "We've been asked to address council size as our first substantial issue," says Hankins. "And it is important to people; the folks in our focus groups are willing to consider more than seven. But when you get into double-digits, people get a little wiggly about it." Nine and eleven are popular numbers for U.S. cities, though council size varies widely -- Nashville, which has fewer people than Austin, has a whopping 41 council members.

If we continue to elect all members at large, adding more might seem superfluous. But there's a natural limit to how many seats a single interest group can fill and hold, and a nine- or 11-member council would end up more diverse (in every sense) by default. It would also make it easier for the council to divvy up its workload, perhaps through a more robust system of standing committees with real, independent power. But city staffers, already feeling taxed by the needs of seven council offices, blanch at the thought of adding two or four more. And we'd have to alter the tidy way the council currently fills the city's 60-plus citizen boards and commissions -- which typically have nine members, one from each council member and two by consensus.

The chance that voters will be asked to add members without changing the electoral system is pretty slim. But these would be separate amendments which voters could adopt or reject individually -- just as they did in 1994, when they nixed single-member but embraced term limits. "There's nobody effectively advocating for any system right now, and the activists in the community are flexing their muscle and supporting the current council," says Garcia. "It's hard to figure out what people are thinking."

And one more thing: Even if we adopt a district system in 2000, we -- or, more likely, the council -- won't be able to adopt a district map until 2001, after next year's census is complete. "Any districts drawn using the 1990 census data will be indefensible in court," says Hankins. "But people in our focus groups tell us that if we don't come up with specific districts, they won't vote for any district plan. I've been taken aback by the strength of that reaction, so ... we'll be finished with our work in December, and if the council so chooses they can put any plan we come up with on the May 2000 ballot. But I'm not quite as sure now as I was a few weeks ago that they will do so."


Our Dwindling Turnout

The pros and cons of any electoral model may be philosophical, practical, or political, but they are generally theoretical. The only real objective measure of a system's effectiveness is voter turnout, and the electoral model is but one of many variables that influences turnout. But when your turnout gets as low as ours is, any change starts to seem like a necessary one.

Last month's City Council elections drew fewer people -- not just a lower percentage, but fewer actual warm voting bodies -- than any city general election since 1967, when Mayor Kirk Watson was nine years old and Austin had less than a third of the population it does now. In percentage terms, last month's turnout was the lowest in 50 years. This was not a fluke, but part of a steady downward trend since the 1970s.

When you look at the chart below, it's hard not to feel that the actual electoral model makes some difference. Those wide swings before 1953, when Austin still had prop-rep, are typical of prop-rep: When all the incumbents seek re-election, challengers don't bother to run, and turnout is minuscule. When the incumbents retire, turnout goes back up. The swings between 1953 and 1975 are different in character: Once we went to a place system, we needed to have runoff elections, and the low-turnout points on the graph are typically runoffs and special elections. The 1971 election, where voters got to pick a mayor for the first time (theretofore the council had elected its own mayor), saw the highest turnout on record; and interestingly the same ballot brought the first African-American onto the council.

But since 1975, when the election of John Treviño ratified the gentleman's agreement, we've had no major changes to the electoral model, and turnout has tanked ever since. The oft-cited culprit in the last election -- the ALLC restrictions -- only made a bad thing a little worse; turnout was already on a downward slide in the mid-1980s, when Austin City Council races hit their campaign-spending peaks.


Time to Change?

In recent weeks, "election fatigue" has become the villain du jour -- Austin (and Texas) have too many elections, and "people get zombied out," says Harrington. "We've talked about trying to combine elections, but I've learned that politicians are very opposed to combined elections, because it causes voters to pay less attention to their races." The city's hands are again tied here, though not as firmly, by the Texas Election Code, and several legislators tried last session to condense Texas' four "uniform election dates" to two, again without success.

Those four dates -- in January, May, August, and November -- actually translate into eight counting runoffs (whose dates are not specified in the code), and on top of that, school bond elections can be set on different dates entirely. Until last year, cities and school districts were prevented from holding elections in November of even-numbered years -- that is, on the same ballot as statewide and federal races, which is fast becoming the only time when normal people actually vote.

But the election code requires cities to use either the May or November election date, and except for Houston all major Texas towns hold May elections, and Austin has used the spring election date for many decades. (Changing it would involve yet another charter amendment.) So if election fatigue were the problem, it should have been noticeable before now. "For all the complaints we hear about too many elections," says Hankins, "our focus groups have shown little concern about it as an issue. I think turnout would be enhanced if we went to a November election, but since our civic elections are nonpartisan and everything else on the November ballot is partisan" (at least in even-numbered years), "whether you can or should mix the two is a question."

Other cities in America, especially in California, have long combined their nonpartisan municipal races with state or federal elections, and thus gotten much higher turnout, so it's a question that should be easy to answer. Even if election fatigue is not really the problem, election unification is certainly one solution, even if it's just unification with other local races. Look at, for example, Los Angeles, which has in abundance everything that causes low turnout: lots of low-income, non-English-speaking residents; large and confusingly drawn districts and hard-to-find polling places; no early voting (though Californians are quite fond of the absentee ballot); and an odd election date used nowhere else in California. But the City of Angels elects its council and (very powerful) school board at the same time, and its average voter turnout, while still lower than it should be, is much higher than Austin's recent average.

Of course, cities like Los Angeles still see the disparities in turnout between lower- and higher-income districts that Austin sees, and even if we can't fix turnout deficiency through electoral tinkering alone, having a district system will alleviate the basic problem of equity. "Having single-member districts tends to, in some instances, increase turnout," says Harrington, "but it also means in those areas where there is depressed turnout, people are still electing their own representatives and getting their own issues addressed."

That is, if they can tear themselves away from their other, currently more interesting pursuits. "For a middle-to-upper-income neighborhood in Southwest Austin, presumably angry at the City Council and heavily politicked, to only get 32% turnout speaks clearly that people aren't that pissed off," says Garcia. "And minority neighborhoods are convinced that nothing will ever change, so you get 2% turnout there. Basically, people are working their butts off so they can make money to recover from the last bust and prepare for the next one -- people are more interested in making their little nest than in participating. The economy has replaced politics as the number one concern of the citizens."


Variables of Voting

The electoral model itself, the size of the council and of the districts it represents, the date of the election, whether it is partisan, even the length of the terms (Austin is also the largest city in America with a council term of three, rather than two or four, years), are all factors that interact to affect turnout and any other measure of a government system's effectiveness. But there's another huge variable: whether the city follows a strong-mayor or council-manager system. We have a council-manager system, wherein the mayor is simply the foremost among equals; he runs the meetings and has the bulliest pulpit, but in most matters is just another council member. A strong-mayor system, on the other hand, functions like state or federal government, where the chief executive (the mayor) and the legislative branch (the council) are separate and equal. (There's also the once quite common -- Austin briefly had it -- but now quite esoteric commission system, where each council member actually runs one or more city departments; the best example in the U.S. today is Portland.)

Strong-mayor cities are rare in the Sunbelt -- Houston is the only big one in Texas -- but they tend to have higher civic participation, if only because the inevitable and inexorable fireworks between mayor and council keep things interesting. But even though nearly every recent Austin mayor, usually at a moment of conflict with the incumbent city manager, has mused publicly about a strong-mayor system here, that is most definitely not an issue on the Charter Revision Committee's plate.

It's worth noting that nearly every city, whatever its model, continually thinks it can and should find a better one. The prop-rep partisans decry single-member districts, but cities with prop-rep are always being asked to change back. San Francisco's upcoming switch will be its fourth change in the last 25 years. Of the 40 largest cities in America, 15 have had charter-revision votes to change their electoral model -- some successful, some not -- this decade, or are planning them for the next two years, or (like us) both.

And, ironically, at the moment in our recent history where we are best poised to change to what might be our ideal system, we have less certainty than ever before what that system might be. So it's understandable that electoral reform has become a less burning political issue even as it becomes a more pressing policy one. As the citizens get ready to drop another quarter on electoral pinball, our main goal seems to be to avoid tilting the machine.

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