Mapping the Changes

Previewing the proposed single-member districts

Under the plan up for vote on May 4, City Council members would be elected from each of these eight districts. The mayor and two more members would continue to be elected at-large.
Under the plan up for vote on May 4, City Council members would be elected from each of these eight districts. The mayor and two more members would continue to be elected at-large.

"Shall the City Charter be amended to provide for the election of eight members of the City Council from single-member districts, and two members of the City Council and the Mayor elected from the City at-large?"

That's all Proposition 3 on the May 4 ballot is going to say; the voters are not being asked to approve a map showing what those eight districts should be. Ultimately, the boundaries of that map will be up to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, which has to "pre-clear" any change to Austin's electoral system to make sure it doesn't violate the federal Voting Rights Act. Even if SMDs pass and are implemented next year, that still gives Austin several months after the election to produce a map to submit to the Feds for review.

But in the two years Austin's been gearing up for the latest SMD effort -- the sixth time that changing our current at-large system will go before the voters -- it's become clear that many won't support SMDs as a concept unless they see and support a map showing where those eight districts would be drawn. (We might have held a charter election last year, if 2000 census data had been ready to draw a map then.) Although the City Council might at its April 11 meeting (the last before early voting starts) decide to skip it, staff have been instructed to have a map ready for council to adopt and, if SMDs pass, send on to D.C.

Staff's best effort -- what they're calling Option A -- appears on this page. To meet the council's time frame, the city has hosted public meetings every day this week at various locations around town, with more to come next week, and the council itself will hold public hearings on the SMD map today (Thursday) and at the April 10 work session before the April 11 vote. There will be public meetings Monday, April 8, at Crockett High School (starting at 7pm) and the Montopolis Rec Center (7:30pm), and on Tuesday, April 9, at Lanier High School (7:30pm) and the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex (6:30pm). The April 11 council meeting itself is being held at the Conley-Guerrero Senior Center in East Austin.

'The Best We Could Do'

This isn't a lot of time to do what in other cities has taken months or years, but the challenges facing city demographer Ryan Robinson, assistant city attorney John Steiner, and other staff players are actually fairly simple. The eight districts would ideally each include exactly 82,070 citizens, but states and localities can generally get away with up to 10% variance between the largest and smallest district. The variance on Option A is 7.3% between the largest (District 7: 3% over) and smallest (District 3: 4.3% under).

To meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, the city has to maximize the opportunities of communities of color to elect the candidates of their choice. This translates into creating as many districts as possible with strong minority populations: As Robinson puts it, "If we're able to put together minority districts, then we should put them together."

Austin's non-Anglo population is 47.1%, and four of Option A's eight districts are majority-minority; two -- Districts 2 and 3 -- are majority Hispanic. The greatest challenge for the staff was to create a district with a large enough African-American population, given that Austin's black community is not growing in percentage terms and is so widely dispersed throughout the city.

Option A's District 1, with a 35.1% black population, is "about the best we could do with only eight districts," says Steiner, even though the Hispanic population in District 1 would actually be larger (44.7%), and even though two-thirds of Austin's African-American population lives elsewhere. However, a similar ethnic breakdown prevails in the corresponding AISD, Travis County, and Texas House districts, which have not only elected African-Americans to office but often sent them there (or back there) unopposed. So "the best we could do" should be good enough to match other jurisdictions' performance, though the Justice Department may not agree.

The Latino population, by contrast, is growing, enough to form straight majorities not only in District 2, which includes the historic barrios on the Eastside and in Montopolis, but also in District 3, formerly a white working-class ("Bubba") stronghold. (The three council members, since 1975, who've lived in District 3 -- including Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman -- have all been Anglos.) District 8, in the northeast, is what the pros call an "impact" district, where Anglos form the plurality (at 41.8%), but the black (14.2%), Hispanic (33.8%), and even Asian (7.9%, the largest of any district) populations are large enough to affect the outcome.

Communities of Interest

After creating the minority districts -- which Robinson calls a "straightforward mechanical process," done with the assistance of special software -- came the more political question of how to divvy up the remaining half of the city into four districts, all of which are at least 70% Anglo. This is where vague redistricting concepts like "communities of interest" come into play, and the City Council decreed that neighborhoods and neighborhood planning areas should be kept together. (Three planning areas are split in Option A -- Central East Austin between districts 1 and 2, Upper Boggy Creek between districts 1 and 5, and East Congress between districts 2 and 3.)

The resulting map does a pretty common-sense job of making those divisions -- as Steiner puts it, "Each district has a certain character that its citizens share." The northwest and southwest suburbs have been split off into their own districts -- districts 4 and 7 -- and the remaining core, including the powerful Birkenstock Belt neighborhoods that have, for 10 years, brought you the majority of the Austin City Council, split into northern and southern halves, districts 5 and 6.

Since the lines have to be drawn somewhere, they'll naturally be drawn somewhere people don't like, and keeping communities of interest together does not mean the resulting districts are all of one mind. This could be said of District 3, which though growing more Hispanic across the board is certainly more Latino in its eastern node around Dove Springs than on the western edge near Manchaca Road. It's even more noticeable in District 6, which pairs staunchly progressive North Central neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Allandale, Rosedale, and Brentwood with their more conservative (though not as conservative as in districts 4 and 7) neighbors across MoPac in Northwest Hills.

Conversely, even though the southern half of the 78704 ZIP code -- the neighborhoods just north of Ben White -- is clearly more Hispanic than the portion north of Oltorf, splitting the inner Southside into two different districts, one stretching north of the river and the other east to Del Valle, is bound to arouse some ire. However, the most obvious alternative would have been to combine districts 2 and 5 and then re-divide them at the river, leaving two districts with large, but not large enough, Hispanic populations -- unlikely to appeal to the Justice Department.

Leveling the Map?

But will Option A appeal to enough Austinites to make this discussion relevant, or are SMDs going down to defeat for the sixth time? For reasons both noble and otherwise, voters who see in the green council a mirror of their own politics feel little reason to change, and as long as those voters dominate the total turnout, SMDs have a hard row to hoe. Even if we disregard the progressive tilt of the "central city voter" as he or she now exists, the urban core has long been over-represented on the city council.

Consider: There have been 38 council members since 1975. Eighteen have lived in what Option A designates as District 5, including Will Wynn and Beverly Griffith. Six have lived in District 6, but only one of them east of MoPac. By comparison, District 4 has had one council member, District 7 has had two, and District 8 has had none at all. Gus Garcia, who lives in District 1, is the first mayor to live east of MoPac. Four of the eight districts are currently devoid of representation on the council, at least in a geographic sense. Even accounting for the sprawl of the city itself -- most of District 4 wasn't within the city limits, or for that matter developed at all, in 1975 -- the political map has tilted far away from the real one.

Obviously, the west-of-MoPac portions of districts 5 and 6 -- Tarrytown and Northwest Hills, not your typical Birk-Belt neighborhoods -- have had more than their fair share of council members, but those boxes have become more green themselves in recent years. It's plausible that northwest and southwest conservatives will turn out in unusual numbers, motivated by the opportunity for representation they used to have but have no longer, to push SMDs over the top. (Both the Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin have gotten firmly and quickly behind SMDs.)

If so, that would be an interesting shift, since conservative west side voters have largely been responsible for killing SMDs in their previous appearances at the ballot box. In 1994, the last time voters were asked, turnout in that charter election (which also brought you term limits) was swelled by religious-right voters who came out in droves to shoot down Austin's domestic-partner benefits, and SMDs were narrowly defeated.

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