San Antonio Has a Voter Turnout Problem, But There Is Hope

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More
Signs line the entrance to Lion's Field on the third day of early voting on April 24, 2019.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Signs line the entrance to Lion's Field during early voting, which recorded lower numbers than the 2017 election.

San Antonio’s municipal voter turnout grew from just 6.73 percent in 2011 to 11.32 percent in 2017. After early voting ended Tuesday, the numbers show we are trending generally the same as 2017, with the in-person vote count at 66,875 compared to 68,979 in 2017. While it’s not a high number by any means, this is still progress – so much so that cities like Dallas have reached out to us at SA2020 to ask what San Antonio is doing to make this happen.

We know we are not alone in this challenge. A Portland State University study from 2015 shows that turnout in 10 of America’s 30 largest cities was less than 15 percent. And yet, in San Antonio, we’re actively removing barriers to voter turnout, and it’s working.

This progress is not by chance. In 2010, close to 6,000 San Antonians came together and intentionally crafted a Community Vision for what we wanted San Antonio to look like by the year 2020. Civic engagement was one of 11 Community Results that made up the vision. SA2020 – the nonprofit organization responsible for driving progress towards the shared vision – tracks municipal voter turnout because the community identified it as an important measure of success to civic engagement.

With a commitment to advancing the Community Vision, organizations like MOVE Texas registered 5,581 voters in Bexar County in 2017 with only two full-time employees. Young voter turnout more than doubled during that municipal election. In fact, MOVE’s model was so successful, they ramped up their fundraising efforts in 2018, hired 12 employees, and went statewide. Today, they are the largest and most effective voter registration group in the state and one of the best in the nation.

SA2020, seeing a gap in easy-to-navigate local resources for voters, partnered with local web developer, Claire Remmert, to produce I Love San Antonio. This website, in both Spanish and English, curates information from more than 10 sources, updating resources in real-time to provide a one-stop resource for elections.

We, as individuals, are affected by the policies and services of institutions every single day. In order to vote, we interact with the government to get registered; we rely on news media and the internet to get informed; we negotiate time off with our employers; and we use streets and sidewalks to get to and from polling sites. In order to vote, in other words, we rely on an array of policies and programs that dictate our access. VIA, understanding the role of transit in our election system, offers free rides to anyone with a voter card.

Other organizations like Mi Familia Vota and League of Women Voters are working tirelessly to engage and activate voters in our community. And, perhaps more importantly, all of these organizations and efforts understand that barriers to voter turnout are historic and systemic.

To better understand how this system creates compounding barriers, SA2020 began disaggregating community indicators – which help us measure progress – by race and council district. Doing so allows institutions to better understand the different histories, challenges, and needs of San Antonians, thereby crafting smarter, more targeted policies and programs and distributing resources most effectively.

In a city that is among the most income-segregated in the nation, we can also see that our voter turnout is intrinsically linked to educational attainment, employment, per capita income, and poverty rate. Our track record of community progress, including our incremental increase in voter turnout, proves that targeted approaches are the only way to move the needle on community indicators.

Disaggregated data not only helps institutions target the populations that need their services the most, it also allows programs to tailor their services and resources to meet the target population’s needs. With this level of intentionality, we are better able to invest in each other’s life outcomes.

The Community Vision is tied to the very mission of our local government: “We deliver quality City services and commit to achieve San Antonio’s vision of prosperity for our diverse, vibrant, and historic community.” How powerful it is, then, that in San Antonio, we wrote what that vision of prosperity can and should be.

In our council-manager form of government, our elected officials are tasked with making policy, setting our near $2.8 billion budget, and hiring and overseeing a city manager, who runs the day to day of our local government. This means our task as “deeply engaged voters,” as our vision for civic engagement calls for, is to elect the people – city council and mayor – who can represent us, and be “responsive and accountable to San Antonians” while helping our local government achieve our shared vision through tailored and targeted services.

We should be honest about our challenges, analytical about our successes, and committed to working together toward our common goals. Do we have a turnout problem in San Antonio? Absolutely. And yet, we have seen significant progress. Progress starts with knowing where we want to go, which we already decided together. It continues with knowing where we are, which we do by tracking and reporting on data transparently and responsibly. We can reach the vision we created for San Antonio, but we can only do that if we remember that we are in this together.  

If you have additional questions about who is running in your council district, you can see MOVE Texas’ Voter Guide, the Rivard Report’s Election Guide, and even how your council district fares in educational attainment, per capita income, and turnout at I Love San Antonio.

6 thoughts on “San Antonio Has a Voter Turnout Problem, But There Is Hope

  1. Ah, nearly all of the Rivard Report’s favorite empty centrists in one photo. Why does this ‘news outlet’ insist on having pictures with campaign signs? More effective – and fair – would have simply been a voting marker notice.

  2. When turnout is so low, I guess that make my vote all the more valuable as a percentage of total, and I vote in every single election, no matter how small.

  3. When the electorate is faced with candidates who neither represent their views much less discuss issues relevant to them, they stay home.
    The debates, the media coverage all reflect the candidates receiving support from the business interests.

  4. I’m curious, exactly what are the “historic and systemic” barriers to voter turnout that the writers speak of? Everything they mentioned was already being addressed. Perhaps the problem is apathetic voters and if that’s their problem then I would rather they DIDN’T vote!

  5. 10% turnout is not progress. it is citizen apathy. why would any city want to study our turnout when 20/30 cities have larger turnouts?? what would change the turnout in my opinion would be to have the mayor and city council elections on the same cycle as Federal and State elections. Having the City elections on a separate cycle is the primary cause of lack of turnout.

  6. A few quick observations: for a city with a national ranking in economic segregation (not income segregation), having a “quality City services” focus will not be sufficient to address our structural challenges. Continuing to expand the safety belt is not a sign of progress. Citing the “very mission of our local government” does not tell us what the city’s vision of prosperity is: What is it & how will we get there? The existing vision was not well done, as it perpetuates an old, simple, narrow business development model & leaves vulnerable populations out, who are expendable; the incentives are for younger, richer, employable new residents.
    You state that elected officials are tasked with making policy, except that they do not, as they only provide “policy direction”. I’ve asked for actual adopted policies, but they don’t exist. To quote: “what you call adopted written policies are what we call policy direction” according to city staff.
    You also state that “targeted approaches are the only way to move the needle on community indicators”, not so. If this were the case we would not still remain a structurally poor city. Programs, projects, initiatives, innovations or activities will not do the job, nor with the continued use of the city’s urban planning model which focuses upon the built environment, rather than in a socioeconomic framework. These are band-aids, not serious policy work.
    Yes, “we should be honest about our challenges”, but first you need to get off a dead-end track and on board toward a new paradigm of values, vision, metrics, and accountability, something yet to be discussed or adopted in our city. With this self-deception we will be declared a “world class” city by local officials & staff before too long.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *