Piss-poor turnout for the runoffs

Early voting at City Hall in October. 

It’s a big day in Austin city politics. The outcomes of the three City Council runoffs could have a big impact on the city’s future.

The contests that have the most consequence are the runoffs in Southwest Austin District 8, between Frank Ward and Paige Ellis, and East/Southeast Austin’s District 3, between CM Pio Renteria and his sister, Susana Almanza.

The fact that Ward is a Republican is likely not as consequential as the fact that he has signaled support for protecting the architectural character of single-family neighborhoods in any code rewrite. That hasn’t been a major emphasis of his campaign, but his comments on the subject suggest that his election would not necessarily bode well for those seeking to fight sprawl by allowing a denser, transit-oriented city. Ellis, in contrast, is an environmentalist who has stressed her support for denser forms of housing and public transit.

There’s no greater contrast on how the city should grow than Renteria and Almanza. Renteria is a full-throated supporter of increasing housing stock –– both market-rate and income-restricted –– while Almanza has been a vociferous opponent of new development, which she blames for gentrification and displacement. A victory for Almanza would be a big win for neighborhood preservationists, essentially canceling out their loss in District 1 (due to preservationist CM Ora Houston’s retirement).

The race in East Austin District 1 between Natasha Harper-Madison and Mariana Salazar is very interesting and is anticipated to be the closest. It also has historical and cultural significance: the district was drawn to maximize the black vote and many believe strongly that the district should be represented by an African American. Others point to the fact that the district is less than a third black and and say that it’s unfair to expect what will likely soon be a majority-Latino district to continually provide City Council with black representation.

But there aren’t any meaningful ideological differences between Salazar and Harper-Madison. They are both politically progressive and support density as an affordability and environmental tool.

The consensus is that Harper-Madison, Renteria and Ellis are the favorites. But in a runoff, nobody really knows a damn thing. It’s not unimaginable that Renteria, who finished more than 20 points ahead of Almanza, would lose in the runoff.

Why? Cuz nobody is voting. Taylor Goldenstein of the Statesman reports:

After early voting polls closed Friday, just 2.7 percent of registered Travis County voters had cast a ballot in person or by mail, according to data from the county clerk’s office.

…Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for a runoff, especially a local runoff, to yield low participation. The special runoff election in December 2016, for example, elicited about 3 percent turnout during early voting and almost 5 percent overall as voters chose between Alison Alter and Sheri Gallo for the Austin City Council seat from District 10 and also picked an Austin Community College trustee.

It will be interesting to see how the final turnout breaks down by district. It’s disappointing to see such low turnout, particularly in light of the record level of engagement from young people and progressives in the general election and over the past two years in general.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see if turnout is higher in District 8, not just because it’s a more affluent district, but because it’s the familiar Dem vs. Republican dynamic that every voter understands and responds to. It’s much harder for those who aren’t plugged into local politics to understand the distinction between the candidates in District 3 and District 1, since all of them identify as progressive.

No matter how much better runoff turnout gets, however, the runoff system is fundamentally unjust and undemocratic. It needs to be replaced with ranked choice voting/instant-runoff.

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