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Why some residents won’t be able to vote in the District 4 special election

Thursday, December 2, 2021 by Andrew Logan

Some residents in the newly drawn City Council District 4 map will not be able to vote in the upcoming special election to fill Council Member Greg Casar’s seat.

“This is a unique situation,” said Jannette Goodall, who retired as the city clerk in November. “This is the first time in the 21 years that I’ve been here that we’ve had a vacancy that has fallen where filling the vacancy was not permitted using one of the uniform election dates.”

Casar announced his run for Texas’ 35th Congressional District on Nov. 4, which served as his resignation from City Council, making the District 4 election the first to be held after new district maps were approved earlier this year. Similar situations will face some residents of Districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10 in the future, during the period where the maps have been adopted, but elections under those maps have not yet take place.

In District 4, City Council has ordered the special election to be held on Jan. 25, 2022. So far, three candidates have filed to run José “Chito” Vela III, Monica Guzmán and Amanda Rios.

The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission certified the new Council district map on Oct. 27. However, the city will use the previous district map from 2013 for the special election.

“The ICRC’s intent has always and was to draw new maps for the 2022 general elections, said Luis Gonzalez, vice chair of the ICRC. “We as a body could not predict, nor could respond to, a special election like that of the District 4 City Council special election now that Casar is … stepping down.”

The commission used 2020 U.S. Census data, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Austin City Charter, as well as public testimony from residents, to draft the new district maps. 

Goodall explained that, since the special election will be filling the unexpired portion of Cesar’s term, which ends Jan. 6, 2025, the city decided to use the same map Casar was elected from.

This means there are certain residents located in the new District 4 map, who previously lived in a different district, who will not be able to vote in the Jan. 25 special election.

The Wooten neighborhood, bordered by U.S. Highway 183, Burnet Road and West Anderson Lane, was located in District 7, but is now considered District 4 under the new map. Wooten’s total population is 5,312, according to U.S. Census data.

The Windsor Park neighborhood, which was split between District 1, District 4 and a small portion in District 9 under the old map, will now be considered District 4.

One of the ICRC’s priorities was to ensure the division of neighborhoods was minimized as much as possible in the redrawn map, Gonzalez said. “Now, unfortunately … some of those Windsor Park residents won’t be able to vote for their representative from, you know, 2022 to 2025. But after that they will, and it only affects a small portion of the Windsor Park neighborhood.”

The total number of residents affected in Windsor Park is difficult to determine, since the previous district line divided the neighborhood. Using census data and information from davesredistricting.org, an online resource that allows users to view and analyze redistricting maps, Gonzalez estimates there are approximately 5,800 residents in Windsor Park who were part of District 1 and are now in District 4.

Reactions from residents now in District 4 who will not be allowed to participate in the special election are mixed.

“It’s a disappointment for sure,” said Joseph Marotta, who lives in Windsor Park.

Moving the district line that used to split the neighborhood to Manor Road was a logical boundary, he said. However, he expressed frustration about how the new maps were communicated to him.

“I follow both Council Member Casar and Council Member Harper-Madison on Twitter, and neither of them really said anything about it … I really found out about the redistricting just because of (Vela) announcing that he was running.”

Jeanette Swenson, who also lives in Windsor Park and supports Vela, said she doesn’t mind that she can’t vote in the special election. “I totally understand that I can’t vote for him, and I think that’s okay. I mean, it’s not a problem.”

Swenson said she plans to show her support for Vela in other ways. She has donated to his campaign and is listed on his website as a public supporter.

“I would be happy to do an event for him. I would be happy to do financial support. I would be happy to do some block walking. You know, all the usual things that I have done over the years for candidates that I support,” she said.

“It is a little weird, a little awkward,” Vela said of the situation. However, he says he can  still serve those residents who are now in District 4 but can’t vote in the special election. “I know the people there very well. I mean, that’s where my kids went to school. It’s the same neighborhood and a lot of very similar … political sensibility.”

Guzmán said she’s making an effort in her campaign to reach out to residents who live in areas that will become District 4 but won’t be able vote in the special election. “It’s important to hear what they have to say now and not wait until those maps are in effect,” she said.

“I will work to ensure that all of District 4 is heard and represented,” Rios said in a written statement. “Whether they are able to vote or not, I will be a champion for their concerns.” 

The next District 4 election that will use the new map will be on Nov. 24, 2024.

“When we get a census, everything sort of gets thrown a little bit into disarray just because of the nature of it,” said David Richards, senior counsel at Austin-based law firm Richards Rodriguez & Skeith. “I don’t mean to diminish it. It’s probably unfortunate and frustrating, but it’s also inevitable … when the census data comes out and mandates in effect changes in districts.”

“It’s repeated endlessly across the country after (the) decennial census,” he said.

The Office of the City Clerk faced complicated hurdles scheduling the special election because of various municipal and state requirements, Goodall said.

“We have to hold an election within 120 days of the announcement, which triggered the Council member resigning and going into a holdover capacity,” she said. “So that 120 days does not allow us to wait until the May uniform election date.”

Additionally, “There’s a separate requirement in state law that a special election cannot be held within 30 days before or after a primary election,” Goodall added. “We have the primary election coming up in March, and so we had to schedule around that date in order to comply with 120 days.”

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This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course. It has been changed since publication to include the fact that a similar scenario will play out across the city from 2022 until 2024. 

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