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Early Voting numbers indicate low city turnout

Thursday, May 7, 2009 by Michael Mmay

The early voting numbers are in, and, unless there’s a huge turnout on Election Day, it seems likely that fewer voters will make it to the polls than have in the past two City Council elections.

 

And here’s why. Around 30,000 voters have gone to the polls in Travis County so far, and around 85 percent of them have been in the City of Austin.  So, around 25,000 votes cast so far in the city elections, and political consultant Mark Littlefield says the percentage of voters casting ballots early has been increasing every election—from 36 percent in 2006 to 46 percent in 2008. “Early voting is getting more popular. I’d say around 50 to 52 percent of the votes have already been cast,” says Littlefield.

 

So, if that proves true, it’s likely that fewer than 50,000 Austin voters will turn out this election. Over the past decade, city elections have drawn around 60,000 votes.

 

Littlefield has broken the numbers down demographically: twenty-two percent of early voters are voting in their first city election; thirty-three percent are over 65; and men and women are voting in almost equal numbers.

 

Peck Young, the director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College, thinks this is a particularly low turnout election for several reasons: there are no ballot initiatives, the incumbents didn’t draw serious competition, one of the open seats is uncontested and there are not huge policy differences between the candidates in the contested races.

 

If you look at voter turnout over time, it seems that Austin’s democracy is in decline. In 1997, around 17 percent of the electorate voted. By 2008 it had dropped to 8 percent. Both Young and Littlefield said there’s an explanation for that – the campaign finance reform ordinance that was passed in ’97.  “In the 90s,” says Littlefield, “campaigns raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the past decade, a candidate has struggled to raise $100,000.”

 

The law has succeeded in keeping rich donors from controlling the process, but it’s also made it harder for candidates to get the word out. “The ordinance is anti-democratic,” says Young. “It’s suppressed the candidates’ ability to express their differences. For most voters, the campaigns don’t even exist.”

 

For example, candidates used to have several ads on TV. The first one would be the kind of fuzzy, warm ads that we tend to see now, but the campaigns would eventually go negative, painting sharp contrasts with each other. Now, candidates only run one ad, and it’s usually a soft one. Carole Keeton Strayhorn is the only candidate whose ad really aims to differentiate herself from her opponents.

 

Young points to the current mayoral campaign. “The differences between the candidates are subtle,” he says. “The differences are real, but it’s not black and white. You need to spend a lot of money to show the differences. Right now, most people know there are two male council members running for mayor, and one female who is not an incumbent. So it’s girls vs. boys and outsider vs. incumbent.  That’s the campaign in a nutshell. Without a clash of ideas, it’s boring.”

 

Young says Austin should raise the individual limit from $350 to $2000 “like every other major city in Texas.” Littlefield says the best way to solve the problem is to keep the contribution limits in place, but move to single-member districts. “If you only have to reach 60,000 voters, then the current limits make sense,” he says.

 

Young says that the low turnout is likely to hurt Place 1 candidate Perla Cavazos, because her base is Hispanic voters, and they already tend to vote in lower numbers.  As for the Mayor’s race, he thought that one of the three candidates could really use a get-out-the-vote effort to their advantage in a low-turnout election, but said the campaigns need more money to do that right.

 

Colin Rowan from Brewster McCracken’s campaign said they have not hired people to knock on doors, but they are doing active phone banking and have plans to ID McCracken voters in a runoff. He said they have spent more on media, because it’s not like “25 years ago when you could have bought time on three stations and been done with that.”

 

Leffingwell has been investing in a field operation, according to Mark Nathan from Lee Leffingwell’s campaign. “We’ve been knocking on doors all over Austin for three months,” he said.  “We’ve systematically identified thousands of Lee voters, and we’ve got a precise plan to turn them out on Saturday.  We’re field people, that’s what we do.”

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