The problem with Austin’s runoff elections

The Austin City Council is a far more democratic institution now than it was four years ago. Not only are there members who represent individual, geographic districts, but the members compete in November elections, which generate far greater participation than the low-turnout May elections of the bad old days.

However, the benefit of the increased participation goes out the window if an election is forced to a December runoff. That happens whenever no candidate garners more than 50% of the vote in the first round. In the 2014 elections, nine of the 11 Council races (including the mayoral race) were determined by December runoffs where the voter turnout was significantly lower than in the November election.

In theory, runoff elections make elections more democratic. First, they ensure that whoever wins has actually won a majority of the electorate. That’s in contrast to the “first-past-the-post” system in most federal or state elections, where a candidate can win with a simple plurality (the abominable Electoral College is a separate issue). For instance, right now in Wisconsin there are a billion candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for governor; the eventual victor could triumph with as little as 20% of the vote. Second, runoffs are supposed to encourage more long-shot candidates to run and more voters to support them. You can vote for Nader in the first round and Gore in the runoff.

But in practice, runoffs lead to less democratic outcomes, simply because the turnout in December elections is so low. The 2016 election for District 10 was the perfect example. Incumbent Council Member Sheri Gallo won 48 percent of the 36,434 people who turned out to vote on Election Day, far ahead of top challenger Alison Alter, who finished in second with 35.5 percent. However, in the head-to-head runoff on Dec. 13, Alter won 64 percent of the 14,757 people who showed up.

Runoffs almost certainly benefit neighborhood preservationist candidates, who can typically count on a small but dedicated following of older homeowners who are far more likely to vote in low turnout elections than younger and poorer voters.

Similarly, runoffs make it much more likely that Republicans will triumph in Democratic districts. I highly doubt that Frank Ward, a Republican candidate for City Council in Southwest Austin District 8, stands much of a chance to win in a November election amidst what is likely to be a strong Democratic year. But if he gets into a December runoff, which is very likely given the crowded field of liberal candidates he faces, I think there’s a good chance he could prevail.

One has to wonder if preservationists have this dynamic in mind with the recent announcement by Susana Almanza that she will once again challenge her brother, Council Member Pio Renteria, in District 3. Renteria was already facing what appeared to be a strong challenge from James Valadez, who has attracted support from the preservationist crowd. Her candidacy makes it much more likely that the election will go to a runoff, one in which there will be at least one preservationist candidate. Granted, Renteria prevailed relatively easily over Almanza in a 2014 runoff, but I still think her chances are much better in a runoff than a general election, especially given the name recognition that her brother has gained over the past four years.


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