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Should mayoral election be moved to presidential years?

Thursday, April 1, 2021 by Jo Clifton

When voters cast their votes on the May 1 ballot, they will have a chance to weigh in on the question of whether Austin’s mayor should be elected in November of presidential election years, instead of on a cycle that puts the mayor’s race on the ballot with the election of the governor. Proposition D gives voters the option of changing the city charter so that the mayor elected in 2022 would serve only a two-year term, followed by a mayoral election in 2024.

Prop D is part of a package of changes proposed by Austinites for Progressive Reform. The most visible and controversial change would be switching from the current Council-manager form of government to a strong-mayor system. But regardless of whether that proposal wins voters’ approval, voters will have to decide how to answer the question of how to time the mayoral election.

Mark Littlefield, a political consultant who worked for Austinites for Progressive Reform last fall, said that he supports Prop D because more people are likely to vote in the mayor’s race if it coincides with a presidential election.

Under the city’s current charter, the mayor is elected at the same time as the governor. In 2018, 424,045 voters cast ballots in city elections. The total number of ballots cast in all city races was 60.5 percent of the city’s registered voters.

That year about 303,000 people cast ballots for Mayor Steve Adler or one of his six opponents. Adler won easily with 59 percent of the vote. At the same time, about 22,000 voters in District 1 and District 3 voted for one of the candidates in those races. After a runoff, newcomer Natasha Harper-Madison and incumbent Council Member Pio Renteria were elected in their respective districts.

In District 5, incumbent Council Member Ann Kitchen, who had no opponent, got 29,413 votes or 100 percent of the vote. In District 8, nearly 32,000 voters cast ballots and in District 9, Council Member Kathie Tovo won reelection with more than 37,000 ballots cast.

In 2020, with Joe Biden and Donald Trump at the top of the ballot, nearly 71 percent of Austin’s registered voters cast 635,805 ballots. Although the mayor’s race was not on that ballot, candidates for Council districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10 were on the ballot. Council Member Greg Casar won his race with nearly 67 percent of the vote and Council Member Leslie Pool won hers with 67.25 percent of the vote. But Casar won his race with considerably fewer votes – 11,629 – compared to Pool, who beat her opponent with 27,423 votes. In District 6, about 35,350 voters cast ballots in the hot race between incumbent Council Member Jimmy Flannigan and three challengers.

Littlefield told the Austin Monitor, “I wasted a large portion of my adult life” trying to get people to vote in May elections. Moving the election from May to November was a big step toward making the electorate look more like the city’s population, he said. Putting the mayor’s race on the ballot with the presidential race is “just taking this one step further,” he said.

In response to a question about moving all City Council elections to presidential election years, Littlefield said, “We don’t want to have so much potential turnover in one election.” For example, he said, “Maybe in one election year there is a huge movement to elect cats to the Council. Instead of having a Council made up of all cats, there will still be some dogs left that are up two years later.”

Peck Young, a longtime political consultant and retired director of Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy & Political Studies, said he is opposed to changing the mayoral election to coincide with the presidential race. Young, who has been involved in his share of races for mayor, Council and a variety of other offices, was part of the group that backed moving Council elections from May to November. However, he said, spending for television, print and other advertising is exponentially higher in presidential years than in gubernatorial years, making it difficult for candidates who are not wealthy to win.

“Deliberately moving the mayoral elections to presidential years without putting some controls on personal spending by mayoral candidates – and some kinds of controls on spending, period – makes it a spending war between millionaires,” Young concluded.

By July 2018, Adler reported raising $575,000 for the November contest. His nearest opponent, Laura Morrison, reported raising $92,000 and loaning her campaign another $28,000 on that midsummer report.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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