Friday, October 9, 2015

Moving mayoral elections may come with a price

A few months ago I was reading an article on an excellent website called City Lab, when I had to laugh.

The headline wasn’t funny: "Voter Turnout in U.S. Mayoral Elections Is Pathetic, But It Wasn’t Always this Way."

The article began by bemoaning recent “anemic” city elections: 
  • A 27 percent turnout of registered voters in Philadelphia last May
  • A 23 percent turnout in Los Angeles in 2013
  • And in New York, 26 percent, “the lowest turnout in that city since at least 1953”
That’s what made me laugh — ruefully.

All these pathetic turnout figures were more than double what San Antonio achieved last spring, when just under 12 percent of us voted.

And that was in a mayor’s race that included an unusually competitive line-up of three veteran politicians — a state senator, a state representative and a county commissioner —and a rookie incumbent mayor.

There is good news. In the run-off between Mayor Ivy Taylor and former Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the turnout surged — to 14 percent.

And that was about twice as many as voted in the two previous San Antonio mayoral elections, when then-Mayor Julian Castro was re-elected without perspiration.

Councilman Ron Nirenberg has proposed a way to improve those numbers.

Instead of holding our elections in the spring of odd-numbered years, he would move them to the November ballots for president and governor in even-numbered years.

That’s been done in a number of cities, including Austin.

That city saw the mayoral vote rise from 11 percent three years ago to 34 percent last year.

Next year, the presidential ballot should drive the number higher.

There may be a price, however.

Those who come to vote for a governor or a president may not know much about the mayoral candidates — but vote anyway.

San Antonio saw a stark example in 1989, when the issue of a sales tax to build the Alamodome was loaded on to the January election of members of what was then called the Edwards Underground Water District.

Then-Mayor Henry Cisneros ran an expensive campaign in support of the dome tax, turning the normally low-turnout water election into a high turnout affair.

One result:

The late Fay Sinkin, an incumbent champion of protecting the Edwards Aquifer, lost to a man who ran no campaign.

His only political advantage was that he shared the first and last name of a scandal-plagued police chief who had recently been run out of town.

We also see the impact of less-informed voters on judicial races.

Knowing almost nothing but the candidates’ parties, Bexar County voters tend to elect almost entirely Republicans in gubernatorial election years and Democrats in presidential years when the turnout is higher.

It’s similar in Harris County, where the Democratic county chairman once told me people whose names were colors did well.

I checked.

Sure enough in the previous election, the democrat who won the most votes was named Green and the one who won the fewest was opposed by a man named White.

In San Antonio, I’ve long observed that German names tend to do well: Hardberger, Wolff, Rickhoff, Nirenberg.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the notion that wider voter participation isn’t a good thing.

That’s tantamount to arguing against democracy.

But moving the election to the bottom of the presidential ballot won’t tell us why, in mayors’ races, democracy is so anemic.

I’ll take on that topic another day.

No comments: