The Case for Local Election Reform

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Early voters wait outside the Lion's Field Adult & Senior Activity Center on Broadway Street North of Downtown.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Moving municipal elections from May to November is one of the proposed amendments to the City charter being considered by the Charter Review Commission.

When I go to the polls this week to vote early in the May 6 General and Bond Election, I’ll choose between 14 candidates for mayor, seven candidates for City Council District 1, and two candidates for District 1 Trustee in the San Antonio Independent School District.

I also will vote on the six different propositions that constitute San Antonio’s record $850 million bond, and the Alamo Colleges’ $450 million bond.

The entire process should take me less than two minutes, and if I am careful to time my trip to Lions Field on Broadway or the Bexar County Justice Center a few blocks from our offices, I probably won’t encounter more than a handful of other voters. My line of work gives me a familiarity with the process that few others enjoy.

For most voters, the experience will not be so easy. Many will say they voted in November’s presidential election and are not ready or motivated to participate in another election, especially a local election where many share a misguided belief that “it doesn’t matter.” For those who do turn out, the ballot will be heavy with unrecognizable names in the race for mayor. Several council district races have as many as nine or 10 people vying for open seats.

Click here to review a sample ballot.

It only takes $75 to put your name on the ballot as candidate, and the City has no enforcement mechanism in place for verifying legal residency, much less a candidate’s fitness for public office.

Many candidates on the ballot make no effort to campaign for office, yet the City’s method of drawing names for ballot placement of names means serious candidates are subject to the luck of the draw. Mayor Ivy Taylor, for example, is listed 12th out of the 14 candidates, which means her name won’t even appear on the first computer screen when voters review candidates for mayor.

The computer screen can display a maximum of 11 names, so voters who mistakenly cast their ballot on the first page and then encounter Taylor’s name on the second page will have to backtrack and erase their first vote in order to go on to the next page and vote there. That’s a formula for confusion and slowing down the process.

You can make the process easier by reviewing the order of names on the ballot before you go vote. Click here to see how names are listed in the mayoral race and your specific council district if you live in the City of San Antonio. Of course, voters in the county’s other municipalities also are going to the polls, and those races also are listed on the sample ballot.

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said the 1,200 volunteer poll workers working this election have been given specific instructions on how to assist voters confused by the high number of candidates that take up two screens in the mayor’s race. Her fear is that people will mistake poll workers helping confused voters as unfairly working on Taylor’s behalf.

It’s a reminder that technology has disrupted many aspects our lives for the better. Government, in too many instances, is not one of them.

This election will cost taxpayers $1.1 million, yet fewer than two out of 10 eligible voters are likely to turn out. There are 1,000,026 registered voters in Bexar County, but no one expects more than 150-175,000 to vote. The turnout would more than double if the local elections were held in November. Half the eligible voters voted in the last presidential election, still very low compared to other states, but far greater than the 10-20% turnout we experience in local elections.

If voters fail to elect a mayor in the first round, city taxpayers will pay another $800,000-plus to finance a runoff election. That number drops down significantly if the only runoffs occur in one or more of the 10 City Council districts.

It’s money that could otherwise be used for better purposes. That’s why it’s time for a serious community conversation about reforming the City Charter to reduce the frequency of elections and moving them to November when far more voters turn out for national and state elections.

San Antonio voters approved a measure during the second term of Mayor Phil Hardberger in 2008 to relax term limits from two, two-year terms to four, two-year terms for the mayor and city council. Yet it’s evident that voters really do not want to elect a new mayor or city council members every two years, even though polls showed they said they wanted that option. No elected incumbent mayor or city council member has been unseated in the last seven years, unless I am forgetting someone or something.

(Turns out I was missing something. Challenger Shirley Gonzales ousted two-term Councilman David Medina in District 5 in 2013. That remains the only instance that has come to my attention since publication of this column.)

Two appointed council members, Leticia Ozuna in District 3, and Keith Toney in District 2, lost their bids to win full terms, but in all the other mayoral and council races since that charter vote in 2008, voters have returned elected incumbents to office.

That’s a strong argument for now moving to two, four-year terms. Not only will such a move save taxpayers the money now spent on May elections and June runoffs every two years; it will allow elected officials to spend less time fundraising and campaigning and more time serving constituents.

There are many reasons to vote this election, and there is nothing I would like more than to be proven wrong about my predictions of a dismal turnout. One sign of San Antonio becoming a better city would be a more robust turnout for elections, one of the best measures of civic engagement.

Regardless of where you live, dozens of important capital improvement projects are contained within the City and Alamo Colleges bonds. Both represent significant infrastructure investments and votes of confidence in the direction of our city’s development.

So prove me wrong and make me wait in line to vote this week. You can wear your “I Voted” sticker alongside your Fiesta medals.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated former District Two Councilman Keith Toney’s first name.

10 thoughts on “The Case for Local Election Reform

  1. Thank you for your Elections-Dates-Need-Changing article. My family concurs wholeheartedly.
    In addition, it’s easy to see that the dates & times of Early Voting and The Election are not easy for many citizens to find & comprehend. We can see why Texas has been indicted by the Feds for elections discrimination against the poor & the dark skinned. No wonder we have such dismal turnout.

  2. Not only do I agree with you on the dismal voter turnout we experience here, but I also believe that people are burned out by multiple elections. One uniform Election Day per year (along with early and mail voting) would suit me perfectly. I also am in favor of an Election Day holiday so that there are fewer excuses for not voting.

  3. I know if I vote yes on a school district bond that I’ve voted to tax myself a tiny bit higher. Can anyone enlighten me if the same is true for city and other government entity bonds in the SA area? With home appraisal rates on the rise the past two years, this could be a deciding factor for me on the bond election.

      • “Neither..will result in a tax increased if approved.”

        There is no guarantee of this as it pertains to the Alamo Bond. There may not be an immediate tax increase, however the maintenance and upkeep of new buildings will increase operational costs dramatically. Eventually, either tax rates will have to go up or they will have to charge students more. Besides, enrollments projections are highly inflated. Just read the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s (THECB) projections for the Alamo Colleges. These projections were not available when the citizens’ committee met and I doubt the Trustees are aware of the projections. (http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/reports/PDF/9111.PDF?CFID=58843168&CFTOKEN=53440034)

  4. I like the idea of moving to a max of two 4-year terms for City council/mayor, and lets set the City elections (mayoral, council and bond) two years offset from the presidential elections (i.e., in 2018; 2022; 2026, etc,). That way, there would be federal-level positions/candidates to vote on to draw higher level interest, but the City issues wouldn’t get subsumed into the chaos of presidential elections.

    • I like this idea a lot. It would icrease midterm elections in the US Congress and City elections all at once. Great idea.

      The only downside I see is that by separating ourselves from November elections and other larger election issues, we manage to avoid bringing party politics into local elections. I REALLY do not want to see any party politics locally here.

  5. Thank you Robert! Yes, I support changing the SA charter to two terms / four years per term.

    It is one’s civic duty to look up and think about the issues and candidates, and then head to the polls to make one’s voice heard. The Internet, news media, public libraries, and probably community centers, help make the information available, sometimes months in advance.
    I would like to put a little more onus on us, We The People, to pound the pavement and do our due diligence. Let’s cut out about 25 minutes a day, 4 days a week, for about 2 months (make notes to refer back to!)
    Push back streaming YouTube kitten videos for those 25 minutes (use a timer with the Pomodoro technique), and be part of an informed electorate (and thank you very much, my older neighbors, for implementing and maintaining early voting sites!)

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