Point Austin: Voter Suppression Made Easy

Hold the election when everybody votes? No way.

Point Austin
You might think the Austin City Council would leap at the chance to increase voter turnout for its increasingly invisible municipal elections, especially since Austin council members never miss a chance to give lip service to greater public engagement and participation. It's supposedly what our civic life is known for – we all love taking part in the public's business, and we all want to know everything there is to know about city government.

As a matter of painful fact, if you believe any of that, I've got a bridge over Lady Bird Lake to sell you.

As Wells Dunbar reports in "City Hall Hustle," last week council, presented with a golden and easy opportunity to increase voter turnout in next year's council elections by six- or sevenfold, pondered the matter at length and decided ... nah. Given a temporary opportunity by the Legislature to move the May election date – for which turnout has been hovering around a pathetic 10% for several years – to November, when turnout for the coincident state and federal contests will be in the 65% range or better, council voted 4-3 to stick with the boutique date.

Now there's a vote of confidence in public participation, eh?

The context is that Senate Bill 100, intended to allow more time for overseas and military voters, altered next year's election calendar so that state and federal primaries and the city election will be crowded together, especially if there are run-offs (or, potentially, contested outcomes). Local jurisdictions were therefore enabled to move to November should they choose, even if their city charters specify a May date (as does Austin's). Since Austin is already formally discussing charter proposals that would change the calendar, perhaps move to single-member districts, and so on, it would seem to make perfect sense to avoid the crush and to take advantage of the greater turnout (and lesser expense) of a combined Novem­ber date – when other city matters might also be on the ballot.

Perfect sense, that is, except to four members of the current council: Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison, and Kathie Tovo.

Unchartered Waters

The reasons the majority gave for standing pat were basically three: 1) the charter says May; 2) we shouldn't vote, in effect, to extend our own terms; and 3) the November election will be too confusing and polarizing for local voters – in essence, May quality is better than November quantity.

In the first instance, since state law controls in this case, the august appeals to the charter seem sanctimonious. There's nothing sacred about May (Spelman acknowledged we no longer even know why it was originally chosen), and besides, council regularly "violates the charter" when – as authorized under state law – it issues bonds or takes similar actions without a popular vote. Worse, the substance of the charter has been steadily undermined in recent years by quixotic petition campaigns. Since it takes only 5% of the registered voters to submit charter-revision petitions (compared to 10% for a new ordinance), political hobbyists of all stripes have an easy detour around substantive organizing or even voter mobilization.* Why elect new council members or build coalitions when you can just write the law yourself? (Indeed, yet another DIY charter-rewrite-by-rump threatens this spring.)

The council objection to term extension makes somewhat more sense, although it too founders both on the state exemption and, more substantially, on the numbers: Here's a sure opportunity to extend the effective franchise to a much broader electorate, especially if the November election comes to include charter changes and a bond vote. Trading a few months' time for a tangible mandate seems more than worth the exchange.

The final reason – that November voters will be overwhelmed by state and national elections, and presidential polarization will overshadow the city campaign and candidates – is frankly indefensible on its face and even ludicrous in light of the regular bond or charter elections already held in November. Indeed, pending springtime foolishness, there will likely be a charter election next November, as Spelman wryly acknowledged to me: "I understand the inconsistency in the argument, believe me. I'm laughing at myself – I understand."

By Invitation Only

There's also an inevitable political backstory, although it's a dubious one.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, Spel­man, and Cole will all be up for re-election next year, and both Spelman and Cole have expressed some interest in running for mayor. Leffingwell and Martinez are widely presumed to be more vulnerable in May than November – especially by the tiny and professionally incestuous group of Austin political consultants responsible in some combination for the campaigns of every single current council member. There is no doubt that these folks were whispering in their clients' ears in advance of last week's vote – as Dunbar reports, one of them, Dean Rindy, pushed the "uninformed November voters" argument also heard from the dais. (There was also an explosion of similar arguments on social media sites in the wake of the council vote.)

Whatever else these insiders like, they particularly like the May electorate – precisely because it's smaller, narrower, more central-city, and much more predictable and manageable than those big and undisciplined November numbers. As Martinez pointed out, the May vote is also older, whiter, wealthier, and frankly less representative than November's – all good reasons, one would presume, in this city rhetorically devoted to "participation," to take a brave chance on including as many people as possible.

The May standing-pat, on a motion by Morrison, passed only on first reading – it will take two more to confirm it. I'll take it on faith that no council member was voting solely her or his personal political interest last week, and that each one argued and voted for what each believes is best for Austin. Nevertheless, it would be gratifying to see council formally acknowledge that there is an undeniable, structural crisis in those May turnout numbers. Having spent much of the spring telling legislators that discouraging voters is a really bad idea, council should think long and hard before doing the same.

*Correction: This passage originally read, "Worse, the substance of the charter has been steadily undermined in recent years precisely by the shrinking electorate. Since it takes only 5% of the previous record vote to submit charter-revision petitions, political hobbyists of all stripes have an increasingly easy detour around substantive organizing or even voter mobilization." The passage has been corrected to reflect the accurate petition information.

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City Council, city elections, City Charter, Bill Spelman, Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison

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