#SAvotes…Sorta. What It Means to Have Low Voter Turnout

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A voter walks into the Central Library polling location with less than an hour to spare. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A voter walks into the Central Library polling location.

My early memories of the political process started in elementary school. Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush were running for president. It was 1988, and I lived in a house divided. My mom and dad – the man who would later become my favorite person to debate – had very different ideas of who should win.

All I remember is drawing a picture of the candidates (the first of many signs that I should never try to draw, ever). Dukakis, depicted as a steaming pile of poo (…‘cause doo-cacas), sat next to a decrepit, brown bush (not nearly as creative).

I wasn’t sure why I was drawing what I was drawing, but I knew that the conversation was one I wanted to be part of. Why? How? Because it was a conversation happening in my living room and on TV.

Fast forward to 1996. I had just graduated from high school, and I would turn 18 that September. This time, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Ross Perot were running. I didn’t register in time and missed out on the opportunity to vote. Oh…but I trash-talked with my dad throughout election night.

In 2000, I was working on my undergrad degree, and I was all sorts of interested in the election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. I won’t bore you with the conversations my dad and I had about electoral colleges and popular votes, but I remember this as the moment my love affair with politics and elections solidified. Hanging chads, Green Party candidates, and recounts…oh my!

It was during this time that I also became more and more interested in local politics. Here I felt like I could make a real difference. Because local policies impact our day-to-day lives the most, and you can speak directly to your representative – no Secret Service agents to stop your appointment.

Never has this been more evident than in the recent decisions made by San Antonio’s elected officials.

It’s at the local level that the distracted driving ordinance was decided. Our local officials passed the non-discrimination ordinance. Your city council representative voted on Uber and Lyft regulations.

Wherever you fall on these issues, know that the person who represents you at the local, district level is the person making these decisions.

From left: Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), Molly Cox, and Esperanza Peace & Justice Center Director Graciela Sanchez participate in a panel on civic engagement at Trinity University in April 2015. Photo courtesy of SA2020.

From left: Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), Molly Cox, and Esperanza Peace & Justice Center Director Graciela Sanchez participate in a panel on civic engagement at Trinity University in April 2015. Photo courtesy of SA2020.

Recently, we had an election here in San Antonio – you may or may not be aware. Every council representative was up for election, as was the mayor of our city. Additionally, multiple charters and propositions saw ballot action this go-round. The big one you likely heard about was pay for our local, elected officials (you know…’cause they were doing all this work, making all these decisions basically for free). That passed, by the way. We also determined who would lead our local public schools ‘cause that’s our job, too.

All of this was decided by approximately 97,686 of the 821,615 registered voters in Bexar County. That’s a little less than 12%. To put that in perspective:

It's a mad world with only 12%.

It’s a mad world with only 12%.

  • Tom Selleck’s mustache (.36) would have been the only one to hang out with the baby.
  • There would have been less than one bride (.84) for less than one brother (.84). And the world would be without that amazing barn raising dance number.
  • Joe Pesci would have had less than one head (.96) in his duffel bag.
  • Ocean’s 1.32 just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

low turnout SA2020Can you imagine if the AT&T Center had 16,581 empty seats at the Western Conference Finals? That’s what would happen if only 12% showed up.

In all seriousness: this means 1.4 million lives will be impacted by the choices of less than 100,000.

Let’s break that down even further – who are these 97,000 voters?

  • Less than 5% of the voters during the May election were between the ages of 18-35 years old.
  • 13% of the voters were between the ages 36 and 50.
  • 82% were over the age of 50.

So… later this year when council approves the budget for our city – ‘cause… you know…stuff happens with the money you pay in taxes – only 97,000 of us chose the people who will ultimately:

  • Decide about our police and fire contracts
  • Determine which social services (and nonprofit organizations who facilitate many of them) will receive funding
  • Decide whether cuts to arts or social services are necessary to balance our budget
  • Advocate for your neighborhood priorities, including: parks, sidewalks, street lighting, bike lanes, etc.

Also important to note: there were 1,737 votes that separated the first and second place candidates for Mayor.

Read that again. Less than 2,000 votes separated our city’s top two candidates.

That’s less than the amount of students at Trinity University. Basically, the student population of Trinity University could change the outcome of the election.

Mayoral Final May 9 City Elections

I get it. We have some serious work to do if we’re going to fix our voter turnout. Simply bemoaning Millenials’ lack of engagement or the clear aversion to technology that our elected officials must have – if “The Voice” can have an instant Twitter save, why do I still need to drive to a polling site? – is short-sighted. We need a comprehensive discussion about engagement.

In the meantime, know this: the person who will ultimately lead our city and be the face of San Antonio is currently up for a vote on June 13. It will either be former District 2 representative and current Mayor Ivy Taylor or former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. Additionally, District 7 is in a run-off. Councilmember Cris Medina faces off against the woman who took his spot for a spell last year, Mari Aguirre-Rodriguez.

Early voting lasts through June 9. I promise there is a location somewhere near you. Find one here. The election is on June 13, and our city will finally have some stability in its elected officials since the departure of former Mayor Julián Castro nearly one year ago.

These officials will serve for two years, and for those two years our chosen representatives will make decisions that could ultimately impact our city for years to come. And we know a little something about our future:

  • By the year 2016, San Pedro Creek, Hemisfair, and multiple urban developments in the heart of our downtown will be underway.
  • By the year 2020, 65% of all jobs will require post-secondary education – training, certificates, degrees beyond high school.
  • By the year 2040, San Antonio’s population will increase by 1 million people.

You are already invested in our city – you’re spending money at local establishments, using public transportation, catching a local show, volunteering at local nonprofits, reading local news. Why not also demonstrate your investment in San Antonio by choosing the people who will be making decisions affecting it? Will the person you vote for ultimately help propel our city forward, and more importantly, will you continue the conversation with your representatives after they’re elected?

Over the course of the next two years, I promise to help make the voting conversation – and our need to think through turnout in a more strategic way – a priority. In the meantime, I hope to see you at the polls, or at the very least, I hope to see your “I Voted” sticker on social media.


*Featured/top image: A voter walks into the Central Library polling location in November 2014 with less than an hour to spare. Photo by Scott Ball.

Related Stories:

Tensions High Between Taylor and Van de Putte at TPR Debate

Mayoral Candidates Talk Future of SA Water, Transportation

Taylor and Van de Putte Tangle at UTSA Forum

Carri Baker Wells: Collaboration Will Make Van de Putte a Great Mayor

Tommy Adkisson: The Case for Mayor Ivy Taylor

12 thoughts on “#SAvotes…Sorta. What It Means to Have Low Voter Turnout

  1. I think we look at elections as a one-off. Vote for a candidate, then it’s over. It’s why I believe we need a comprehensive discussion and subsequent strategy on engagement. Once the candidate is selected, you have to continue the conversation. Make appointments to talk about issues that are important to you. Show up at B-Sessions. I just had a rousing Twitter conversation with two legislators. We’re almost in the midst of public input on our 2016 Fiscal Year budget. There will me forums – digital and in-person – for you to voice your concerns/priorities. I’m truly not trying to Pollyanna this, but it’s important that once elected your representative sees and hears from you.

  2. Molly, this is a fine article and you raise several good points, but, sadly, I’m not sure you’re reaching your target audience here. I would wager most readers of the Rivard Report are fairly civic-minded and engaged folk already. Bob and his staff have done a good job of covering local elections in the months and days leading up to them. They’ve also posted many different letters of support for the various candidates, and whether you agree with the different contributors or not, you can’t say that this outlet hasn’t done its part to help educate San Antonio. I bet if you poll Rivard Report readers (in fact, RR, why don’t we do this?) you’d get a pretty large constituency of readers that have voted in recent elections.

    I hope you’re able to take your message and reach out to those in the community who actually don’t vote. But the fact is that this is an abysmal trend, not just in San Antonio, but across the entire state of Texas. Did you know that Texas had the worst voter turnout in the entire country in last year’s November mid-term elections? As the second largest state in the U.S. we should be embarrassed by this. I’m no expert, and I’m not sure what can be done to reverse this awful trend, but I am fairly certain that the conversation has to move beyond the safe and familiar confines of the Rivard Report.


  3. The numbers truely are abysmal, but not at all unexplained. San Antonio is a very heavily partitioned city that faces a dilemma with integration. There are a very large number of people who feel (and are) simply disenfranchised. They don’t see changes in their everyday. They don’t care about Uber and Lyft as much as drainage and lack of sidewalks. They are caught in a pattern of un/underemployment without an end in sight.

    And everyday, on any major news outlet you consistently hear about the problems that the new, young, “professional” class deals with instead. I’m sorry, but Uber isn’t going to help our youth or schools.

    I for one am very interested in seeing with the Promise Grant does for the city’s East Side, but I’m also overwhelmed with the fear that a few corporate interests will make way with spending most of the money on importing new populations into the city instead of aiding our residents.

    All in all, San Antonio is an apathy breeding-ground for folks who don’t drink craft beer and can’t afford brunch at the Pearl. Unfortunately, that is probably more than 88% of the population.

  4. Okay, so today I read about how Ivy’s hubbie is a bail bondsman who doesn’t report murder suspects and how Lettie’s hubbie has avoided paying his taxes over and over again. If this is the best SA can produce, well, then, I am going to sit on my hands at home. No thanks–this isn’t democracy–it’s a charade and I am not going to vote. Zero interest in voting for the same old, same old.

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