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Photo by Alyssa Olvera/KUT. A voter casts their vote at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum during early voting in the general election.

Austin is holding runoff elections for mayor and City Council. Why don’t people vote in these races?

Thursday, December 8, 2022 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Beto O’Rourke. Sure, you’ve heard of him. Greg Abbott? Duh. Herschel Walker. You’ve probably heard of him, too. (If you haven’t, here you are.)

But what about Celia Israel? Ryan Alter? Linda Guerrero?

Walking out of a coffee shop in North Austin on Monday, Paige Henney conceded those last three names may be less familiar  even though they’re the names of candidates running to represent people like her on the City Council.

“I think we know more about the Georgia runoff election than we do about Austin’s,” Henney said. “I know the mayoral race is going into a runoff, but I don’t know when it is. … I don’t know anything about it.”

Henney is not alone. Far fewer people vote in local elections when there’s not also someone running for federal or state office on the ballot. In 2014, the last time Austin had a runoff election for mayor, 15 percent of voters participated; in other words, just 1 in 7 voters weighed in on whether attorney Steve Adler or former Council Member Mike Martinez should be the city’s next mayor. (Spoiler alert: Adler won.)

“This is the great irony of American politics,” David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, told KUT. “Turnout is always and everywhere lower in local races than in state and federal races, even though local is what you feel the most.”

Why is this? Why do voters who show up to elect presidents and governors not show up to vote for mayor or City Council members?

It’s about timing

Austin used to hold city elections in May – but, well, hardly anyone showed up.

Between 2003 and 2012, Austin had four mayoral elections. About 57,000 voters, on average, participated each time – a number that accounts for less than 15 percent of registered voters.

Rightfully concerned about turnout, Austinites agreed to move local elections to November so they would coincide with federal and state elections and get more people to show up to the polls. So far this has worked. In November, as voters showed up to vote for Texas governor and U.S. and state senators, 52 percent of Austin voters cast a ballot for a new mayor.

A person standing at a podium gestures as he speaks into a microphone.

Alyssa Olvera /KUT. Austin mayoral candidate Kirk Watson talks to supporters at an election night party in Austin on Nov. 8.

“If you want more people to participate in local elections, it’s definitely important to hold those local elections during the regular electoral calendar when voters are paying attention,” Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin, told KUT.

But in that November race, none of the six mayoral candidates got more than 50 percent of the vote and so, per state law, the city has to hold a runoff election for the top two vote-getters: Celia Israel and Kirk Watson. (The same goes for three Council seats: districts 3, 5 and 9.)

Here, though, is where timing may work against voter turnout. Early voting is going on right now, and election day is Tuesday.

“It’s in the middle of the holiday season. It’s the end of the semester,” Steven Pedigo, director of the LBJ Urban Lab at UT Austin, said. Classes at the university ended Monday, and students are preparing for final exams.

Voters are not only busy, Pedigo said, but also tired. This runoff election comes five weeks after the November election, and Pedigo said it’s hard for candidates – and voters – to maintain momentum and excitement.

“You get all geared up and get excited to go vote,” he said. ”You’re hoping to have a solution or conclusion to this. But you don’t. ‘Oh, I’ve got to go back out and vote.’”

Less information about local candidates and voting

When you time local elections with federal and state elections, voters benefit from the get-out-the-vote efforts of these much larger, better-funded campaigns.

By this summer Beto O’Rourke’s campaign had spent just over $70 million on his race for governor. Watson, who has been the biggest fundraiser in the Austin mayoral race, had barely spent $200,000 in roughly that same time period.

In a runoff election, all that money – and the barrage of ads and mailers that comes with it – goes away.

“You’ve taken away all the institutional power of those candidates who are helping to get voters to show up, all their field workers who are trying to raise turnout,” Niven said.

Then there’s the issue of familiarity. People are less likely to vote when they don’t know a candidate’s name or where they stand on key issues. And when candidates don’t run with a political party affiliation, as is true in local Austin elections, voters don’t have a cheat sheet.

“You’ve taken away the single biggest clue voters have for whether this is a candidate they’re interested in or not,” Niven said. “Imagine going to the supermarket and they’ve taken all the labels off the products, and now go pick your favorite kind of soup. It’s going to be an awful lot harder.”

Without a logo to differentiate tomato bisque from French onion – or Republican from Democrat – some voters may feel overwhelmed by the amount of research they need to do to understand how the candidates differ. That’s especially true in a city like Austin where, while candidates may differ on policy minutiae, the vast majority of people who run for local office are politically liberal.

This is where quality, local journalism might come into play, providing residents with coverage of smaller races. But as newsroom staff across the country has dwindled  in just four years, the number of editorial employees at the Austin American-Statesman has fallen from 105 to 53  so has coverage of these races.

This can have a real impact on voter turnout. In one study of nearly a dozen cities in California, researchers found a likely relationship between a decrease in local newspaper staff and voter turnout in mayoral elections.

“If all you’re getting is national coverage in your local paper, (it’s) not that useful from the standpoint of choosing a city council member or a mayor,” Aaron Weinschenk, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, said.

A small group of people get a big say

With such low voter turnout in local elections, a select few get to decide who will make decisions that could impact Austin for decades.

In 2020, Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who represents far Northwest Austin, won the race for her district by just 677 votes over the incumbent, Jimmy Flannigan. Less than a third of people eligible to vote in that race did.

“That’s the irony of a runoff,” Niven said. “It’s meant to ensure that majorities pick officeholders. … But the group of folks who voted is a tiny fraction of the city’s population.”

Austin voters have signaled that they don’t want runoff elections any longer. Last year, a majority of voters supported Proposition E, which would have made local races decided by ranked-choice voting. That’s where instead of choosing just one candidate, voters can rank their preferred candidates from 1 to 5.

But city attorneys have maintained that state law does not allow for ranked-choice voting. And so, we continue with the runoff  and with it, likely low voter turnout.

Haya Panjwani contributed to this report.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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