City Hall Hustle: Rock the Vote! ... Not
Council punts on november ballot
That's a rough take on how many Austinites make it to the polls for City Council elections – and a percentage council tacitly endorsed last week, voting 4-3 to keep the city's next contest in May instead of moving it to November 2012. A potential change to November had been allowed by Senate Bill 100, a state law enacted by the 82nd Legislature that has rearranged federal primaries and potentially clustered elections (and potential runoffs) impossibly close together.
The politics of when to hold an election have become inseparable from the policy, with many observers speculating that Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Mike Martinez stand a better chance of re-election in a high-turnout November election rather than a May contest. Typically, about 10% or so of Austinites turn out for May elections, making them more winnable for candidates backed by better organized Central Austin neighborhood associations and environmental and other activist groups.
Indeed, the specter of the unwashed masses heading to the polls come November loomed explicitly in the background of the debate. Dean Rindy, a political consultant who recently worked on Place 3 Council Member 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 .... 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. ... Real democracy depends on informed citizens who have a chance to educate themselves."
Proponents of keeping the vote in May also argued that a change would violate the spirit of the City Charter, a document Tovo noted she had recently "sworn an oath to support" – although SB 100 expressly permits local officials to move the election date regardless of charter provisions. Council Member Sheryl Cole echoed Tovo, arguing that any such change should be placed before local voters. But Bill Spelman plowed ahead with the uninformed voter issue, arguing 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 countered simply that the city would be "paying more money to have fewer voters" in May elections, adding, "That just doesn't seem right." Martinez made the most impassioned case for a shift, calling it disheartening to hear "terminology that was used during the debates of the 15th and 19th Amendments to give women and African-Americans the right to vote, things like 'uninformed.' Things like, 'They don't know what they will be deciding upon.' That is exactly what was said when African-Americans wanted to vote; that is exactly what was said when women fought for the right to vote. And here we are in 2011 in Austin, Texas, using those same arguments?" He also noted that "uninformed" voters had in fact previously voted in November on charter amendments and bond projects.
In the end, the votes to make the change weren't there. Laura Morrison's substitute motion – to proceed with a May election – carried 4-3, with Morrison, Tovo, Spelman, and Cole voting aye, and Leffingwell, Martinez, and Chris Riley voting nay. Since the May date couldn't muster a 5-2 majority, it passed on first reading only, requiring two more votes to be codified – although it seems unlikely minds will change much before council's next meeting in October.
Spelman elaborated afterward: "My concern is, if we bundle those two [local and national elections] together, even if the local government stuff and the school district are at the top of the ballot, a lot of people are just going to page through the top of the ballot to get to the good stuff. They'll vote for Obama, or whoever the Republicans put up, and partisan stuff – that's what's been taking up all their time and their thought for the last few months – and I don't think they'll vote for local stuff."
Similarly, Cole reiterated that any change should occur in a broader framework of revision. "We have bonds coming up ... we just set up the Charter Revision Committee, talking about the length of our terms, the city attorney reporting to City Council. All of this is gonna be on the ballot – talk about potential voter confusion!"
Returning to that spate of ballot issues, Cole called to send the question to voters this November – with the last charter election having occurred more than two years ago, another charter revision is now possible – although there's a good question as to whether there's sufficient time to arrange it.
Someone tell the other 90%.