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Are we apathetic, turned off or simply unable to get the message ?

Wednesday, May 8, 2002 by

Voting totals in Saturday’s election show that voter apathy is alive and well in Austin, Texas, despite the city’s reputation for political activism.

A smaller Austin once showed voting tallies that topped 50 percent of registered voters. Even through the mid-80s, candidates could count on at least a third of the voters heading to the polls. But by the 90s, the total number of voters had declined to around 20 percent. When former Mayor Kirk Watson pulled ahead of Council Member Ronney Reynolds in the May 1997 election, only 17 percent of the voting population had made the effort to express themselves. Reynolds, like Council Member Beverly Griffith, decided he couldn’t win a race against Watson without engaging in a negative campaign. Watson became Mayor with 48.5 percent of the vote. Reynolds had pulled slightly less than 40 percent. That was the first time in Austin history a mayor had ever been elected with less than the traditional 50 percent plus 1.

Last Saturday’s turnout was almost 9 percent, comparable to most Austin elections over the last three years, with the exception of the presidential election last November. Observers blame the low turnout on higher voter registration, general apathy and a simple lack of passion about current elections. But the big problem might just be money. Candidates are hamstrung by the Charter amendment approved by voters in 1997, which limits contributions to $100 per person and bans collection of campaign funds after Election Day—whether the candidate is successful or not. The election of 1999, the first after the passage of the “Little Less Corruption” amendment, drew only 8 percent of registered voters.

“There’s definitely less interest in elections because it’s not about ideas. It’s about personalities,” said former campaign consultant Mark Yznaga. “And the ideas haven’t been able to come through because of all of the negativity.”

The lawsuits by Kirk Mitchell and Linda Curtis did nothing to help voter turnout. It just set a bad tone for the campaign, Yznaga said. “People are sick of it,” he said. Yznaga is assisting his wife, Rep. Ann Kitchen, who will have a tough battle this fall against Republican opponent Todd Baxter, a former Travis County Commissioner.

In a more general sense, University of Texas Professor Rod Hart ties low voter turnout to two moods among voters: satisfaction or disappointment. Either can lead to voter apathy. Voters also are tired. The demand of the ballot box, in some areas of the state, has seemed almost incessant, Hart said. Voters simply lose interest.

Longtime political consultant Peck Young of Emory Young & Associates has a different theory: “Without the ability to communicate, you’re not going to have anybody vote. Plus you’ve got to understand there’s an element in this town . . . who want this (depressed turnout) . . . Linda Nitwit (Curtis) helped them do it . . . We’re lucky if the election officials vote.” Young, who consults on statewide campaigns but no longer works city races, calls the amendment the “little less democracy” clause. He said, “You can’t communicate and have no way to highlight differences,” adding that the ordinance was “the worst thing for (the) city” and “the most undemocratic piece of legislation” he’d ever seen. “I’ve seen more intense campaigns in Marshall, where there’s no limit on your ability to communicate. Thanks to Linda and that idiot ordinance, you can’t do anything”

Quorum Report Publisher Harvey Kronberg, who follows the action at the State Capitol, agreed. He pointed to the $100 contribution cap as being a hindrance, rather than a help, to voter turnout. While the intention may be to stop special interests, the result is actually less money in many campaign coffers. That means less visibility for campaigns and often no money for television time.

“When you can only raise $100 at a time, you can’t get TV time and you can’t get radio time, and it leaves the voter having to search for the debate, rather than having the debate put in their face,” Kronberg said. “Campaigns may operate with a little less corruption, but they also operate with a lot less participation.”

That can be deadly in a town with so many new arrivals. With no institutional history, “you essentially have disenfranchised local participation,” Kronberg said. “You end up catching one story a month before in the local newspapers.” Even Kronberg—who follows the election process closely—said he was at a loss on some Austin ballot issues last weekend because he simply didn’t have enough information to make an informed choice.

“I would consider myself a sophisticated voter, someone who is reasonably informed, and I felt like I was stabbing in the dark on some of these issues,” Kronberg said. “Even the people who follow politics can’t figure out how they need to vote.”

The City of Austin has official winners now for Saturday’s City Council election. They are, as reported earlier, incumbent Council Members Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman and Council newcomer Betty Dunkerley. City Clerk Shirley Brown survived the ordeal and we all learned a lot in the process. Council Member Will Wynn has also cooled down since Saturday night when he told us that voters in Florida “at least got butterfly ballots.”

Brown explained at great length in a memo to the Council what difficulties she and various election judges suffered through to try to make sure that voters got the right ballot. Voters in Precincts 237, 249 and Williamson County 275/329 were without ballots for one-half hour, one hour, and four hours, respectively. She outlined a number of steps that would have been taken if Council Member Beverly Griffith had not withdrawn from a runoff with Dunkerley. That election was to be the city’s final paper ballot election. Next year, the city will switch to electronic voting.

Wynn said, “I’ve got to tell you that I was pretty reluctant coming into this canvassing because (of) some of the problems on Saturday. But the response from the City Clerk, and seeing the actual numbers of the likely people that unfortunately were affected by the ballot shortage, frankly the result of those precincts independent of that,” show that the outcome would not have changed. Wynn also said he was satisfied with the corrective measures the City Clerk had proposed and quite comfortable with the results.

City employees who were pressed into service as election workers at the eleventh hour in Pct. 249 suffered verbal abuse from a handful of voters. The abuse was so extreme that Council Member Danny Thomas felt compelled to tell the public, “In this day and time everybody makes mistakes . . . We need to let the citizens know that everybody should be treated like human beings.” Judges at that precinct were so frightened that they locked themselves into the polling place after they were subjected to the abuse.

Goodman said she wanted to make sure that training of future judges includes advice on self-protection. She said it would have been appropriate for election workers to call 911. “I think it would have been embarrassing to the people in that precinct.”

The canvass was approved on a vote of 5-0, with Council Members Raul Alvarez and Griffith absent.

Travis Health Clinic deficit down about two-thirds

If a reduced yet still existing deficit can be considered positive, then County Commissioners got some good news Tuesday morning.

Earlier this year, Stephen Williams, executive director of Health and Human Services, told commissioners the department’s budget would be more than $330,000 in the red due to decreased revenues and unexpected expenditures for indigent care. Yesterday, he revised the deficit for the Federally Qualified Health Clinics down to $110,999.

Most of the budget savings will come from understaffing at the county’s own rural health clinics. The city and county share the cost of staffing those clinics. City credits to the county against unused staff in the staffing formula are expected to come to $628,000 this year. Last year, the credit from the city to the county was $600,000.

The net effect to the county will be a savings of $178,691 in personnel costs this year. In a memo to Commissioners Court, Williams wrote that the county had not reimbursed the city for any primary care services provided this year or pharmacy services last year. The county and city are discussing alternative payment methods for those services.

Williams told commissioners the department wouldn’t see shortfalls until the final month of the current fiscal year. Still, commissioners have agreed to transfer $366,272 out of the FQHC reserves to cover unexpected shortfalls in pharmacy costs.

The county budgeted $70,000 toward its own pharmacies this year. Williams said the department anticipated that more clients in the Rural Medical Assistance Program would shift their prescriptions to outside pharmacies this year due to the overload in the county’s pharmacy system.

That, however, has not been case, Williams said. Many clients have stayed with the county’s pharmacies—which is, in the end, cheaper to the county, Williams pointed out.

Increasing costs and enrollment have also impacted pharmacy costs, Williams said. RMAP enrollment has increased by over 7 percent. Sliding fee scale patients have increased by 37 percent and visits have increased by 11 percent. Also, the cost of medication has increased by 15 percent annually. All of these factors, Williams noted, have contributed to an increase in pharmacy costs.

Commissioners agreed to the concept of transferring money, but only if the department can provide specifics on when and where the money is spent. Williams is expected to bring back more detailed figures next week. Williams also agreed to return with more information and strategies to address other department shortfalls.

Neighborhood Plan up before commission . . . The Planning Commission will be considering the Boggy Creek Neighborhood Plan and associated zoning changes tonight . . . Zoning approved for luxury airport hotel . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission last night granted a zoning change for an Embassy Suites Hotel and conference center at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. John Q. Hammons Hotels will develop the 90-foot building, including amenities such as a pool, exercise room, two restaurants and 26,000 square feet of meeting space. Sarah Crocker represented the applicant. Commissioners approved the building on a vote of 6-2, with Commissioners Diana Castañeda and Angular Adams voting against the zoning change. Commissioner Vincent Aldridge, a candidate in Saturday’s election, was absent . . . Work session today . . . Expect to see Council Member-elect Betty Dunkerley in the audience at today’s City Council work session. The Council is scheduled to be briefed on the Seaholm District Master Plan and the five-year budget forecast. One item, placed on the agenda before the election, will be skipped—discussion and possible action on the division of the city into eight Council districts. Council Member Danny Thomas will open the meeting by discussing his visit to Austin’s sister city in Nigeria.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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