Austin will keep May elections for now

As we know, the city of Austin holds its municipal elections in May. They have three year terms for City Council, so half of their elections are held in even-numbered years. As we also know, a bill that was passed by the Lege this spring will cause a conflict for cities like this as the primary election calendar will leave them insufficient time to prepare for their elections. Austin has contemplated moving its May 2012 election to November, but in the end and in a close vote on Council decided to stay put for the time being.

A narrow council majority said the city should stick with May until the voters decide otherwise, via a citywide referendum planned for November 2012. Council members on the losing end argued that a May election will cost the city more money while drawing fewer voters, and noted that the county’s top election official recommended a November date.

But council members also voted their own interests.

May elections are typically dominated by Democratic clubs, civically engaged environmental clubs and neighborhood associations in Central and West Austin, whose influence is magnified by chronically low turnout. Those groups were largely responsible for the election of council members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo. Those groups’ support is also key to the prospects of Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman, both of whom supported a May election and are considering running in it against Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Leffingwell’s supporters think a November election would strengthen his re-election prospects. A larger and more diverse electorate would dilute the influence of activists who have grown increasingly frustrated with Leffingwell, and his higher name recognition would help among voters who have traditionally shown little interest in city issues. Council Member Mike Martinez, a Leffingwell ally, voted for a November election, as did Council Member Chris Riley.

The Thursday debate centered largely on whether a larger turnout would be more important than the risk of a presidential election drowning out local issues.

The vote was 4-3 to keep the May election date. I get the argument for that, and I have no doubt that local races will be utterly drowned out by the Presidential and legislative cacaphony that next November will be. On the other hand, I have a hard time being sympathetic to the idea that lower turnout is a good thing. Katherine Haenschen argues forcefully for “new and casual voters [being] given lower barriers to participating in our city elections”; she expands on that further here. Personally, I wish there was no such thing as a “casual voter”, but if voting is a habit – and it is – then the goal should be to get more people into the habit of doing it. All things considered, I’d have picked the November option.

The good news is that this should not, or at least that it need not, be an ongoing concern.

The city is working on a proposal to overhaul Austin’s political structure by switching to a system of district representation on the City Council. Now, each council member runs citywide. That referendum could be accompanied by a proposal to move the city elections to November of odd-numbered years, and extend council terms from three to four years.

If the district plan goes to voters in May, its fate would be decided by the same electorate that has rejected the idea numerous times. Council members are in general agreement that it would stand a better chance of passing in November and should be put to voters then, regardless of when the City Council election happens.

More on the single member district plan is here; there’s a citizen group petitioning for an alternate plan as well. Going to November of odd-numbered years only strikes me as the best solution. Houston’s turnout is no great shakes most years, but it’s historically much better than Austin’s. That’s the direction I’d recommend they go.

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