Friday, May 24, 2013

Low Voter Turnouts | Casey's Last Word

The recent City Council elections have some people wringing their hands about how many people sat on their hands.

Barely one of 20 registered voters went to the polls in the city elections.

In some school board elections, the rate was even lower.

Most notable, of course, was the race in the Lytle school district, where one tally looked like a soccer score.

Christina Mercado triumphed over Patty Cortez by a vote of 1-0. 

That voting district, one of seven, has only about 250 registered voters.

Some gasped at the notion that Cortez didn’t even bother to go to the polls to vote for herself.

But then, neither did Mercado.

They couldn’t vote for themselves.

They don’t live in the district they were seeking to represent. 

With only about 2,500 residents in the school district, some of the seven board districts sometimes don’t produce a single candidate.

So the law allows them to choose candidates from outside their residential districts.

The abysmal turnout, from little Lytle to big San Antonio, has some calling for city council and school board elections to be moved to November in even-numbered years.

With the campaign money and media attention that come with presidential and gubernatorial races, those elections are guaranteed higher turnout.

My friends at the Express-News suggested this solution in an editorial last week.

It is, I think, an exceedingly bad idea.

Why? Because putting low-interest races at the bottom of high-turnout ballots aren’t exercises in democracy. They are lotteries.

The Express-News made a similar point in an editorial last November.

It bemoaned the fact that judicial candidates were buffeted on the tides of party politics.

In the 2010 Republican tsunami, every Republican judicial candidate in Bexar County won.

In the Democratic surge of 2012, only one Bexar County Republican judge survived.

The reason is simple.

In the high-turnout elections, the vast majority of voters know nothing about the down-ballot candidates.

Yet many vote in these races.

They vote on the basis of the only information the ballot makes available: the party of the candidate, the sex of the candidate, any ethnic clues given by the candidate’s name or, in some cases, the catchiness of the name itself.

Actually, a lottery is fairer.

It is based on pure mathematical chance, not on voter bias.

We saw this phenomenon in last spring’s Democratic primary.

Michael Soto, a Trinity University professor, had distinguished himself as one of the best members of the State Board of Education.

Yet he lost by a 2-1 margin to a young woman who spent no money, did very little campaigning, and articulated no clear message as to why she was a superior choice to Soto.

If you think she won based on any rational basis, ask yourself this question: What is her name?

I thought so. I had to look it up. It is Marisa Perez.

Low voter turnout is too complex a problem for any one simple solution.

But I’d rather have our leaders chosen by a small sample of voters who may know something of the candidates than a large sample of ones who are voting in ignorance.

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