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Should city elections be moved to odd years?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017 by Jack Craver

Some political leaders and activists in Austin believe the city would be better off if elections for City Council did not coincide with higher-profile campaigns for president, governor and Congress.

At a meeting of the Charter Review Commission on Nov. 13, Commissioner Matt Hersh floated the idea of changing the city charter so that Council elections are held during odd years. The problem with the current system, he said, is that many of those who show up at the polls are just there to vote in whatever race is at the top of the ballot.

“What’s going to happen is you’re going to have a lot of people voting who don’t know what’s going on, and they’re either going to choose not to vote (in the Council races) or they’re going to vote for the person who either has the funniest name or has a name that most resembles their gender or race or whatever,” he said.

Five years ago, at the same time that they approved putting in place the district-based 10-1 Council system, voters overwhelmingly approved moving Council elections to November. Before that, Council elections had been held in May, separate from high-profile national or state partisan races, and generally attracted very low voter turnout.

Hersh, who has worked on a number of Council campaigns, said that the larger electorate makes it more challenging for candidates to “communicate with the people who actually pay attention to what City Council’s doing.”

Commissioner Jeff Smith similarly said that the switch to November elections has led to candidates in most districts focusing on their ties to the two major parties – in most cases the Democratic Party.

Commissioner Roger Borgelt argued that it is tough for Council candidates, who are subject to strict contribution limits, to get their message across during a political season dominated by federal, state and county candidates who can raise and spend vastly more.

The only significant pushback at the commission came from Commissioner Ingrid Weigand, who said she was “fundamentally opposed” to a plan that she described as “pre-selecting who you’re talking to and ignoring everybody else.”

Some political leaders seem open to the idea.

Jeff Jack, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, compared the current system to having to take all of his college exams on the same day. Most people don’t have the “bandwidth” to get educated about so many elections at once, he told the Austin Monitor.

“If you’re trying to deal with state elections, national elections and local elections all on the same ballot, it’s a lot of homework,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she hadn’t expected the matter to come up at the Charter Review Commission but that holding Council races in presidential years likely drives up the cost of Council campaigns because there is greater competition for a limited number of political staffers. Tovo said she isn’t sure whether changing the date would be a good idea.

Any proposal to change the election system faces long odds, however, as indicated by the vociferous pushback from those who view it as an attempt to reduce participation in city politics.

Mayor Steve Adler quickly poured cold water on the idea.

“I don’t support moving city elections to years where voter turnout would be significantly reduced,” he said in a statement to the Monitor. “Austin voted to hold elections the way we do now so more people vote, and more people voting is a good thing.”

“Moving Council elections to odd years would hurt representation and hurt accountability,” said Council Member Greg Casar in a tweet. “When there’s people going to vote for Pres. or Gov. already, council campaigns are forced to engage with and be held accountable by more people. We want more people voting, not fewer.”

Council Member Alison Alter similarly said, “Broadly, I favor creating conditions that make it easier to vote and thus improving voter turnout.” She also noted that it is cheaper to have more elections at one time.

The prospect of lower-turnout elections also provoked outrage from activists who view the idea as an attempt by Austin’s old guard to claw back influence that it has lost with 10-1.

“It’s what it was like before 10-1, and it was bad for minority and low income turnout,” tweeted Andrew Mayer, an urbanist activist. “Am tired of people trying to segregate Austin in various ways.”

Others point out that while the current system boosts turnout for the general election, held in November, the election is often determined by a December runoff between the top two vote-getters. The turnout for the final contest is invariably much lower, leading to a very different electorate.

For instance, in last year’s matchup between Alter and then-Council Member Sheri Gallo, less than a third as many ballots were cast in the December runoff as in the November general election. Gallo led after the first round, 48 percent to 37 percent, but got clobbered in the second round, 65 percent to 34 percent.

Some argue that if there’s any change to elections the Charter Review Commission should be making, it should be to get rid of the runoff entirely with “instant runoff” voting, where voters rank the candidates on the ballot. If their first choice is not one of the top two vote-getters, their vote is assigned to their second choice. The system exists in a number of cities, including San Francisco, Minneapolis and Memphis.

Bringing instant runoff elections to Austin, however, would likely require a change not just to the city charter but to state law, which currently requires candidates for municipal office to obtain a “majority” vote. Election officials have interpreted that as prohibiting an alternative system.

Photo by John Flynn.

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