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Early voting patterns hard to figure in new districts

Monday, October 27, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Political observers have been watching early voting this past week with an eye toward what the voting patterns may mean for Austin’s first election of a City Council with single-member districts.

Because of the new 10-1 Council, prognosticators find themselves in uncharted territory as far as using early ballots as a bellwether for what will happen on Election Day, Nov. 4.  Moving the election from May to November with other major elections is expected to put the City Council ballots in front of a much larger number of voters.

Early voting patterns show that while overall turnout is up significantly, the highest vote totals are in polling stations in West, Central, South and Southwest Austin, while totals in Northeast, East and Southeast Austin are relatively light.

So far, early voting in Travis County is on pace to match the turnout in the 2010 midterm elections, with 67,732 votes cast as of Sunday, 10.38 percent of Travis County’s registered voters. That puts early voting on track to hit between 19 and 22 percent this election. In the 2010 midterm, 22.26 percent voted early with 17.60 percent on Election Day, making a total turnout of 39.86 percent.

A note about these vote totals: In early voting, any voter can cast a ballot at any polling location, so a large turnout at one location is not a firm indication that all of its votes came from a particular district or part of town. Ballots cast on Election Day will be recorded by voters’ precincts within each Council district, except for the mayoral race, which is at large.

The heaviest turnout in the first seven days of early voting was at the District 10 Randalls at Research and Braker, drawing 6,797. Drawing large numbers in District 7 is the polling station at the Ben Hur Shrine Center on Rockwood Lane, with 4,330 votes. In District 8, the Randalls on South MoPac and William Cannon pulled in 4,085 votes.

The Highland Mall polling station in North Central Austin, which is in District 4, had 3,715 votes. UT’s Flawn Academic Center, which is in District 9 and close to District 1, had 2,465 votes. Another Central Austin box, the Fiesta Mart on I-35  polled 1,785 votes.

Early voting has been lighter east of I-35. Eastside polling stations, including the Parque Zaragosa Rec Center in District 3 and the Carver Museum in District 1, have polled 646 and 662 votes, respectively. The Delco Center in District 1 in Northeast Austin has seen 521 votes, while the Dan Ruiz Library in Southeast Austin, which is located in District 3, has had 699 votes.

South Austin stations have seen good turnouts, as the HEB on South Congress, which is in District 3, but on the border of District 9, has seen 2,620 votes, while the Randalls on Ben White, in District 5, has had 2,861 ballots cast.

Though it’s not possible to separate Council voters from the overall total, with five days to go, early voting is on pace to far outstrip the turnout in the previous three Council elections. In May 2009, only 6.36 percent of registered voters cast early ballots, with total turnout coming in at 13.10 percent. In the May 2011 Council election, just 3.35 percent voted early, with a total turnout of 7.40 percent. And in May 2012, 4.61 percent voted early, with a total turnout of 10.70 percent.

Another wrinkle is that in the past, elections for Council have been staggered so that no more than half of the seats were up in a given year. This time around, all 11 seats for Council members and the mayor are up for grabs. With members from the current Council running only in District 9 and the mayor’s race, at least nine members of the panel to be seated in January will be holding a Council office for the first time.

Because of the change in the Council election date, it is difficult to compare early voting totals to previous elections. In addition to the Council election, voters are having to dig through a very long ballot that includes a major city bond proposition, county elections, statewide elections for the Texas House, Senate, attorney general, lieutenant governor and governor, and federal congressional and Senate seats.

Overall turnout in the last three statewide and national elections has been much higher. In 2008, a whopping 40.64 percent of registered voters cast ballots early in Travis County with 16.48 showing up on Election Day, making for a total of 66.12 percent turnout. And in 2012, the last presidential election year, 37.72 percent voted early with 23.94 percent on Election Day, for a total of 61.66 percent.

Early voting continues through Friday. For polling locations and other information, go to the Travis County Elections website.

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