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Low voter turnout following familiar pattern in city races

Monday, May 12, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Voter turnout for Saturday’s election was less than 8.5 percent, which means that just fewer than 36,000 people cast their ballots in the city elections. Winning candidates incumbent Lee Leffingwell and newcomer Randi Shade both received just over 22,000 votes. Leading Place 4 candidate Laura Morrison received nearly 13,000 votes.

 

Although that may seem like a lower-than-average turnout for a City Council race, a look at the city’s voting history shows several other elections with a similar turnout during the past 10 years. Prior to that, in 1997, voters adopted a $100 limit on campaign contributions. That campaign finance rule limited the ability of candidates to buy expensive TV advertising. While voter turnout was 17 percent in 1997, in 1998 it dropped to just 8 percent. Turnout was also low in the spring of 2000, when 7 percent of voters went to the polls. In 2002, turnout was up slightly to 9 percent.

 

The Council raised the limit to $300 per person last year but it still keeps many candidates without personal wealth—or at least retirement funds to use—from being able to compete in Council races.

 

During the past decade, ballot propositions have proven to be just as big of a draw as Council races.  In 2005, when the public approved a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, 16.49 percent of the city’s voters cast ballots. The following year, slightly more than 11 percent of voters cast ballots in an election regarding the two amendments proposed by the SOS Alliance, both of which failed.

 

Campaign consultant Elliott McFadden, who worked on Jennifer Kim’s campaign, told In Fact Daily he believed a citizen-lead referendum would have driven higher voter turnout. “For example, if the Stop Domain Subsidies initiative had been on the ballot in May rather than being pushed to November, I think it would have turned out more people,” he said. McFadden had hoped voters would feel a renewed interest in local politics, given the intense voter interest in the March party primaries. “I was surprised, because after we had a Democratic Party primary where you had huge turnout, record turnout,” he said, “I thought that some of that would spillover to the City Council races.”

 

Consultant David Butts, who is working on the Morrison campaign and helped elect the woman who will become District Attorney in January, Rosemary Lehmberg, said about 85 percent of those voting in this year’s Council races were Democrats. And it is generally from the ranks of those reliable Democratic voters that City Council candidates look for support.

 

 

Prior to the “Clean Campaigns” charter amendment in 1997, voter turnout was 26 percent in 1994. That year, about 85,000 people voted on a number of Council seats and the question of whether the City Council should appoint the City Attorney. Voters elected Bruce Todd after a runoff in that Mayoral race and rejected the Charter amendment regarding the City Attorney.

 

While the campaign-finance regulations have made it more difficult for candidates to raise enough money to buy TV time, several candidates in this race did get their message out on both TV and radio. Lee Leffingwell, Jennifer Kim, Randi Shade, Laura Morrison, and Cid Galindo all had TV ads running in the days prior to the election. The public-safety unions also bought radio ads announcing their support of Galindo, while local business owner Rick Culleton purchased TV ads denouncing Kim and Leffingwell. Culleton also purchased a series of print ads in the Austin Chronicle attacking Kim and Leffingwell and urging residents to vote for Jason Meeker.

 

“We still don’t know how much money got spent by Rick Culleton. I’m assuming it’s in the neighborhood of $40,000 to $50,000,” said Mark Nathan, who served as a campaign consultant for both Leffingwell and Shade. “He probably spent at least $5,000 on print ads in the Chronicle and probably $40,000 on TV.” Culleton had previously served as the campaign treasurer for Meeker and resigned that position just before publishing a series of ads in the Chronicle. “It says a lot about Lee that he was able to fend off these negative attacks from this third party and from Jason Meeker and finish as strongly as he did,” Nathan said.

 

While Leffingwell won re-election to the Place 1 seat by a commanding margin, Meeker did show strength in some precincts near Northcross Mall. The spokesman for Responsible Growth for Northcross won precinct 241, his home precinct. The ballot box at Brentwood Elementary showed Meeker with 50.16 percent of the vote, compared to 43 percent for Leffingwell and 7 percent for also-ran Allen Demling.

 

In other nearby precincts, Meeker also pulled more than 40 percent, including precinct 243 in the Allandale Neighborhood and precinct 239 at Gullatt Elementary on Treadwell Blvd. While voter turnout was more than 20 percent in both of those precincts, it was not enough to offset the fact that Meeker consistently pulled about 20 percent of the vote in most other precincts. In precinct 237 at the Highland Park Baptist Church on Balcones Drive, for example, Leffingwell had 80 percent of the vote.

 

In the Place 3 race, Randi Shade dominated almost every ballot box. Incumbent Jennifer Kim had some precincts where she topped 35 percent of the vote, such as precinct 241 in Brentwood and precinct 239 at Gullatt Elementary. But most precincts more closely matched the results at precinct 342. At the box at Barton Hills Elementary, just under 16 percent of voters turned out, with 69 percent of those casting ballots siding with Shade and only 25 percent choosing Kim.

 

In Place 4, top vote-getter Laura Morrison consistently out-polled second place finisher Cid Galindo by ten percentage points or more. Galindo did show strength in some precincts, including precinct 304 at Kiker Elementary in Circle C, where he received 45 percent of the vote compared to Morrison’s 24 percent. Galindo also did well in precinct 237 at the Highland Park Baptist Church. He received 37 percent of the vote, nearly matching Morrison, who had 38 percent in that precinct. Galindo also out-polled or matched Morrison in some east-side precincts, but those tended to have lower voter turnout.

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