In an effort to boost voter turnout for local elections, Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) has proposed that San Antonio move its municipal election from May of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years to coincide with federal elections.
Across the nation, federal elections routinely have vastly better voter turnout rates than local elections. On average, 60% of eligible voters show up to the polls during presidential elections in the U.S. compared to about 26% for mayoral elections. During San Antonio's 2015 General Election in May, an abysmal 12% of local voters showed up – a slight improvement over decades of low voter turnout in San Antonio.
During the July runoff election between Mayor Ivy Taylor and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, only 14.5% of the city’s 660,983 registered voters went to the polls.
“Our most precious natural resource is an active and engaged citizen, and each vote cast is an investment in our future,” stated Nirenberg, who officially announced the season change during the Civic Engagement Summit on Monday morning at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Moving municipal elections from May to November is an important step toward greater participation and more significant community input.”
The data backs up his claim. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that piggy-backing a mayoral election onto a presidential ballot yields an average 18.5% jump in voter turnout. The same 2013 study found that midterm elections see an 8.7% average increase when moved to November.
"The City of Austin recently switched its municipal elections from May to November, yielding an increase in voter turnout from 10.7 percent to 40.4 percent," stated a news release from Nirenberg's office.
Another benefit of coinciding local and federal elections is the money that the City could save on administering one election instead of two.
"The Maryland General Assembly voted to delay Baltimore’s next local election by one year, lining it up with the 2016 presidential election to save the city an estimated $3.7 million," according to Governing Magazine.
In order for his proposal to be successful, rules at the state level and in the City Charter would need to be changed. The City's Charter Commission would have to formally recommend that the change be put to voters as a charter amendment in an upcoming election.
Critics of combining federal and local elections point to the possibility of over-crowded ballots and the distraction of voter and media attention from local issues in the face of more sensationalized federal races and debates. These concerns, among others, are those that the Charter Commission and state will have to review and balance with the benefit of increased voter turnout.
"Civic disengagement is the most pressing challenge facing our nation, and its impact in San Antonio is felt acutely in everything we do: from adopting an annual budget to building the comprehensive plan, from addressing public safety issues to debating new modes of transportation to the future," Nirenberg wrote in the letters. "Each of these efforts would be far more fruitful with greater public participation. That participation begins and ends with voting."
The charter can only be changed every two years and voters did just that this May, so the amendment would have to wait until 2017 for a vote.
According to Texas Election Code, municipalities can change their election dates to November, but only if they do it before Dec. 31, 2012 – a date that Nirenberg calls "arbitrary."
*Top image: Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) attends the TechBloc opening rally. Photo by Scott Ball.