Austin @ Large: Where Was Everybody?

No easy explanations for decreasing voter turnout

Austin At Large
Every time a public official, elected or appointed, does something bad or stupid, activists and pundits tut-tut, "This is why people don't vote." Is that Austin's excuse?

There are scores of different excuses, we're sure. Some are always too busy, some can never get a ride, some never learn where their polling places are no matter how many elections we hold (the upcoming ACC board run-offs will be the fourth citywide ballot in three months). But since much of Austin is still in the government business, and politics is adjudged to be more important here than elsewhere, it's still embarrassing to the civically inclined that our voter turnout is among the lowest of any major American city.

The whipping boys (and girls) of choice in recent years have been the campaign-finance reform advocates who gave us the $100 limit on contributions to City Council candidates, adopted in 1997 and upheld (narrowly) by the voters on May 4. The political newsletter In Fact Daily explored the topic right after the election, talking mostly to campaign consultants, who were quick to point to the $100 limit as the culprit -- no surprise, given their line of work. Surely, financial austerity has limited candidates' own ability to get out their voters, with a predictable effect on turnout. But in the 1997 mayor's race, where Kirk Watson and Ronney Reynolds spent well over a million bucks between them -- the spending orgy that motivated disgusted citizens to push for, and then vote for, the $100 limit -- turnout was only 17%. If that's all the difference the $100 limit makes, then why not keep it?

We're 139th!

Another oft-cited culprit is Austin's electoral system itself. Turnout loomed large on the minds of the first Charter Revision Committee, which recommended the single-member district proposal that was altered by the City Council and then rejected by the voters May 4. In the largest international study of voter turnout, which looked at every national election held in every country on the globe since 1945, the electoral system that produced the worst turnout was the one we have in Austin -- at-large places with runoffs. If we had proportional representation, or even just a block vote where everyone ran on the same ballot and you had X-number of votes (hey, I can vote for Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken!), research would suggest we would have higher turnout yet.

Since state law limits our options and Austin voters have rejected six attempts to change the system, we must make do. In any event, structural problems don't address why turnout has gone steadily downhill since 1971's peak of 57%, the first election with the seven-member, elected-mayor system we have now. (We've had at-large places since 1953.) Nor do many other explanations of why voter turnout is low and getting lower in America (we rank 139th in the world in average voter turnout) really pertain here. More than 95% of the eligible voters in Austin are registered. We have early voting for three weeks before the election. What gives?

Even our rapid population growth doesn't really explain diminishing turnout. Sure, there are hundreds of thousands of people in Austin now who weren't here in 1993, when Jackie Goodman and Brigid Shea were elected in a vote with 27% turnout. The newcomers aren't as likely to be involved in politics and government as a vocation, and they don't know the backstory involved in green-on-green races like we saw this time -- they're not comparing today's Daryl Slusher with the 1993 model, as Kirk Mitchell asked them to do. But that 1993 figure equaled more than 100,000 actual voters, compared with the 42,000 who showed up May 4, which was itself more than showed up in May 2000 to re-elect Kirk Watson. So even if we factor out the newbies, it seems clear that there are people out there who used to vote who don't vote any more.

Outside the Box

You may think this is all leading up to a big finish where we explain voter apathy, but no such luck. Surely, all these things -- the $100 limit, the newbies, at-large races -- add up, but none explains the whole turnout trend. It's true that, in America in general, people have come to see voting as not a right but a chore, a tool to be deployed for emergency use only, and are thankful when they don't have to bother. But we see other things at work in Austin.

One, ironically, is the tradition of direct public accountability built into the Austin status quo. One crank with bad intentions, let alone a roomful of earnest citizens with good intentions, can shoot down most any city initiative. Who cares about lobbyists in the back room when the citizens in the front room can so clearly jerk the City Council's chain? In contexts where the vote is the only way of influencing politics, people vote, because they can't e-mail George W. Bush and expect him to cave under their righteous anger. It happens at City Hall all the time.

This may explain why only 12% of folks in "high-turnout" Central Austin bothered to vote May 4. What about everyone else? The polarization of Austin between rich and poor, white and non-white, west and east is, we think, the biggest factor behind Austin's pathetic voter turnout. As Austin becomes steadily more non-Anglo, and as income disparities between Westside and Eastside grow larger, the pool of likely voters shrinks.

Poor people don't vote (what difference does it make?). Rich people also don't vote (what's in it for me?), though they vote more often than poor people. Efforts to mobilize either the top or bottom strata of Austin society have been pretty desultory. We saw some signs of life in the high-income high tech community, but then the bust happened. We see spikes on the Eastside to vote for Ron Kirk, for example, but such history-making campaigns, by definition, only happen once.

It doesn't help that Austin's perennial big issues -- traffic, neighborhood integrity, Barton Springs -- are mostly middle-class white issues, defined in terms of where Austin was in 1990 with half the people, also known as the good old days. Back then, Austin was largely middle-class and white. Today it's not, but Austin politics still is. There's fertile ground here for a candidate who speaks a different language. If people come back to the polls again, it will be to vote for people now lurking within None of the Above.

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elections, city council, turnout, In Fact Daily, $100 limit, Kirk Watson, Ronney Reynolds, Charter Revision Committee, single-member districts, Daryl Slusher, Kirk Mitchell

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