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Another municipal election, another year of anemic voter turnout

voter_apathySan Antonio is about to complete its first municipal election with terms extended by the 2008 charter change to allow four two-year years over the prior limit of two terms. But, even with two more terms, voter turnout for San Antonio municipal elections continues to rank among the lowest in the nation, coming in a the bottom among the 22 largest cities. City leaders and politicos have been perplexed as to why San Antonio ranks so low, offering up all sorts of possible solutions. The latest, offered in a column by Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia, even suggested extended term limits might be the source of the problem.

Garcia points out several issues that seem to plague our local elections, from a less than stellar field of candidates to confusion about redistricting. But one point he seems to spend more time on is the extension of term limits, citing candidate familiarity as a possible reason for voter apathy.

“It’s also time to face some facts about the relaxed term limits approved by voters in 2008. For years, we heard that poor municipal turnout was directly tied to the strict term limits implemented by this city in 1991. The argument went like this: If you allow voters more time to become familiar with their local representatives, they’ll come out to vote,” said Garcia.

He went on to say “This year, with the council class of 2009 allowed to seek third terms, it’s obvious that the opposite is true.” While one might want to point fingers at term limit extension as the reason for the apathy, there’s really no data to support the position and is yet another straw grasp to figure out what the real problem is.

But that doesn’t absolve the issue San Antonio has faced for several decades. In fact, as Garcia pointed out in his column, the last time San Antonio saw anything resembling active voter participation was when it elected Henry Cisneros as mayor in 1981. That followed the creation of single member districts, which changed the voting dynamic of the city dramatically.

But, after looking the chart produced by Fair Vote, it’s evident there’s something more at issue within Texas. After all, Texas’ major cities round out the bottom of the list without another city intermingled. That says we may be doing something wrong in Texas with regards to municipal elections.

There have been some tweaks to the municipal voting process, as Garcia suggested, such as moves to align the elections with November general elections. Austin even recently made a change that allowed voting on election day at any polling place, much like what happens during early voting.

Rey Saldana has been actively pushing for increased voter turnout, even though he’s experiencing little opposition, targeting non-voters in an effort to raise the numbers in District 4. It seems to have had some effect but only election day will tell the tale.

Bob Rivard also wrote on the subject, suggesting that convenience such as voting by mobile device would help change the tide. To start with, there are some very serious technology and legal hurdles to overcome for this to happen. But it’s not outside the foreseeable future. However, I would counter if it were this easy, why would we see such larger turnout numbers for a presidential election, yet half the numbers for statewide and half them even more for municipal elections? It’s the same process.

The Fair Vote trend has me curious about a Texas phenomenon I plan to investigate over the next couple of days. Could it be these other cities align with November? Are their municipal elections partisan? Is it just the apathy of a Texas voter? There is a root cause that’s out there that apparently no one seems to have tapped into throughout Texas. But getting an answer tomorrow will not change the results.

Expect more dismal voting turnout, especially if we get thunderstorms.


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