With some luck and dry weather, about 8% of Travis County's registered voters, perhaps 40,000 or so, will manage to get to the polls by this Tuesday, Nov. 5, while the other 92% make explicit their indifference to the whole process. Off-year elections are notoriously ignored here and elsewhere, and I've long since abandoned the notion that homilies by political columnists have any measurable effect on turnout. The apathetics and the naysayers have won; while the chattering classes of Austin never tire of patting ourselves on the back for the city's legendary participatory politics, most of our neighbors blissfully ignore what passes for official business at City Hall and the Capitol, until they hear in retrospect that some personal ox has been gored: property taxes, river tubing, gun shows.
At that point, another popular local syndrome kicks in: Why Didn't Anybody Tell Me About This?
For those of you still listening, there's a nifty new function on the Travis County Clerk's elections website (www.votetravis.com): If you plug in your name and either your voter ID number (from your registration certificate) or simply your birth date, the site delivers a PDF of the ballot for your particular precinct, so you can see the precise choices that apply to you, during early voting or on Nov. 5. For my Precinct 135, it's not a scintillating list: the nine state constitutional amendments (only a couple of which actually possess constitutional stature) and the city's sole proposition, the $65 million in bonds for affordable housing, this time with at least a little more explanatory information than the under-promoted and under-explained proposal that failed last fall.
You can read the Chronicle's formal endorsements summarized fully here. From this corner, if you vote on nothing else, the housing bonds are indispensable: a minimal means for the community to do what we can to hedge against rising housing costs, and to take some pressure off our most vulnerable neighbors, including many children and elderly.
The housing bonds are on every city ballot, the state props on every county ballot. Of the latter (all of which will almost certainly pass), it's Prop. 6 – the creation of a state Water Implementation Fund that will begin using $2 billion in Rainy Day money to address water infrastructure needs – that has received the most ink and raised the most debate. No one disputes that we need to address our future water needs, although some opponents (hardcore anti-taxers and libertarians) basically oppose public sector projects altogether.
Harder to dismiss are the complaints from some environmentalists that the state overemphasizes infrastructure projects (dams and pipelines) and underemphasizes conservation and recycling. That's undeniable, but it also amounts to setting the perfect against the good (another local political syndrome). It was a major environmental victory at the Capitol to get 20% of the funding dedicated to conservation and reuse, and to undermine that victory by opposing its implementation would be extremely shortsighted, while reinforcing conservative arguments that the Rainy Day Fund is untouchable.
Our editorial board quibbled about a couple of the other amendments, mostly annoying rather than outrageous. Every session offers another constitutional "tax exemption" for veterans or their dependents. If the state of Texas truly cares about its disabled veterans, why won't it support them and their families directly – or do something about the estimated 40,000 who will have no health insurance because Gov. Perry and the Republicans, out of partisan intransigence, refuse to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid?
Vote to help veterans, if you will – but neither a piecework constitution nor a piecework health care system is any way to govern Texas.
Meanwhile, voters to the north and east will be voting in House District 50, a much-gerrymandered gargoyle that stretches from Jollyville to Webberville (a Dale Watson song waiting to be written?). With three Democrats and a single Republican, Mike VanDeWalle, a runoff seems virtually certain between him and either Celia Israel, Rico Reyes, or Jade Chang Sheppard – but in a long shot, a heavy Democratic turnout could in theory boost two Dems to the front of the pack. At any rate, for those of you in HD 50, it's another reason to do your part.
Around the county there are a handful of local initiatives. Bee Cave proposes reauthorizing a small sales tax for streets; Rollingwood wants bond money for water infrastructure and roads; Round Rock, Sunset Valley, Marble Falls ISD, and the tiny Pilot Knob MUD all have funding requests on the ballot. A handful of small jurisdictions seek council members or aldermen; where so few people vote, your vote carries greater weight. (The full county ballot is also available at the County Clerk website.)
And that's where we began. I'm familiar with all the tired, pseudo-rebellious or libertarian arguments that voting is a bourgeois or establishment delusion – even while the current political powers in Texas, understanding what's at stake, do everything they can to make it difficult or impossible for so many of our fellow citizens to vote. It was barely a generation ago that all across the South, people were fighting and dying for the right to register to vote, in an ongoing struggle that stretches back literally hundreds of years. We all have an obligation to honor that history, and accordingly, no right to turn our backs on a simple, even ceremonial, engagement of community. See you at the polls.
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