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May elections

As we know, the Lege passed a bill that would have the effect of moving the date for primary runoffs into May. This is causing heartburn for cities like Austin that hold their municipal elections in May of even numbered years.

The proposal would give U.S. troops deployed overseas more time to receive and mail back their ballots in party primary elections. The change is mandated by a federal law passed in 2009 .

But in a sort of domino effect, Texas would wind up holding more elections in May than some counties can handle, said Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir , who is legislative liaison for the County and District Clerks Association of Texas.

In the case of Travis County, DeBeauvoir said, her office could not run Austin’s May 2012 election.

“There wouldn’t be much of a choice,” DeBeauvoir said. “We do not have the time and resources to run the city’s election and satisfy the new requirements for the state primaries.”

That would probably force Austin to move the May 2012 election to November. Voters usually have to approve such a change, but the legislation allows the City Council to make that call. City Council members up for re-election in May, in addition to Leffingwell, are Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman.


Austin and many other Texas cities hold municipal and school board elections in May to ensure they aren’t lost amid the higher-profile state and federal races.

For the past 30 years, only about 35,000 or so people have voted consistently in Austin city elections, even as the city’s population has swelled, said Peck Young, a longtime Austin political observer. Turnout is now abysmal, with somewhere between 7 percent and 13 percent of the registered voters showing up to the polls. Energized neighborhood groups, environmental activists and some Democratic clubs hold outsize influence. Slightly more than 7 percent of Austin’s registered voters cast ballots in this year’s May election.

A November 2012 election, by contrast, would be paired with a presidential contest and state races. If history is any guide, it would draw a much larger pool of voters, including the younger ones who turned out in force for Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans eager to vote against Obama and casual voters who don’t pay close attention to city politics.

In 2008, 65 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots.

“Austin is still going to be a very blue city,” political consultant Mark Littlefield said. “What changes is that a few small but politically important groups that are very influential in May may be somewhat less so in November. They’re still important, but not the be-all, end-all. Who that change favors, I’m not sure.”

Young said a November election would be decided by voters who don’t pay attention to city issues.

“Judging by the turnout in local elections, most people in Austin don’t know or care who’s on the City Council,” he said. “If the candidates don’t have high enough name ID — and I think only the mayor might, because of the media attention — this becomes the electoral equivalent of throwing darts. Holding the election in November is the stupidest idea I’ve heard this year, and it shouldn’t happen because we’re too cheap to fund elections.”

For comparison purposes, here are turnout numbers for Houston elections in recent years:

2001 general – 28.3%
2001 runoff – 31.5%
2003 general – 31.2%
2003 runoff – 22.7%
2005 general – 19.6%
2005 runoff – 4.0%
2007 general – 13.5%
2007 runoff – 2.7%
2009 general – 19.1%
2009 runoff – 16.5%

Outside of the 2005 and 2007 runoffs, which had no Mayoral races and only a few Council contests, our turnout is considerably better. The 2005 election had no Mayoral race, but that was the year that the Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment was on the ballot. Both the 2007 and 2009 elections were considered to be disappointing for turnout. All a matter of perspective, obviously.

I was going to ask why not move Austin’s elections to odd numbered years, like Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas (among others) have, but Austin City Council members serve three-year terms. I believe Fort Worth has the same issue. Given that, I don’t know what the best answer is. I’m just glad we don’t have to deal with that here.

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