Editor's note: CultureMap Austin is proud to partner with Leadership Austin — the region's premier provider of civic and community leadership development — in this series of editorial columns meant to inform Austinites about the upcoming City of Austin proposition elections to be held November 6.
Six times Austin has said “no” to single-member districts (SMDs), and six times they’ve come back onto the ballot. Will this November — with two different districting options on the ballot — be Lucky Number Seven for advocates of geographic representation?
Many veterans of local politics are understandably skeptical about the idea that’s been rejected six! times! could ever earn the voters’ approval. And with two plans on the ballot to (potentially) steal votes from one another, and with most Austinites disinclined to vote in any city elections and with so many other items on a very long November 2012 ballot, the skeptics may have the winning hand.
At the same time, Austin’s been voting on SMDs for nearly 40 years now. The last go-round happened a decade ago in 2002. You may have noticed that much has changed in Austin since 2002, let alone since 1973, and finally adopting SMDs would be neither the first nor the last accommodation Austin has made to its new role as a bona fide major American city.
Austin is the only big city in America that elects its city council the way we do. Most big cities, as well as many smaller ones (including several of Austin’s own suburbs) have district systems — either in pure form, with only the mayor being elected citywide, or in hybrids that allow for some members to be elected at large.
This year we get to choose between the two — Prop. 3 is the pure 10-1 plan, Prop. 4 the 8-2-1 hybrid. If they both get 50% of the vote, which is possible since you can vote for both, the one with the most votes wins.
The initial impetus for SMDs came soon after Austin’s current council system emerged in the early 1970s. That system included an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” reserving council seats for African-American and Latino representatives.
The agreement is purely local custom without any force of law and was (and still is) found wanting by many in Austin’s communities of color, who would like to guarantee they can elect the candidates of their choice without having those choices ratified by white voters.
However, as the African-American community has dispersed throughout the city, the challenge of drawing a “black district” has increased, and leaders in that community — who used to be the strongest advocates for SMDs — are now notably more ambivalent.
Meanwhile, as Austin has grown and the number of city voters has shrunk (fewer votes were cast this past May than in 1971), many local constituencies feel chronically underrepresented on the Austin City Council. This isn’t solely due to the at-large system; low turnout is a chronic problem in big cities across the nation, and Austin’s strict campaign finance system limits the ability of candidates to engage potential voters through media. So the city electorate has steadily become a less and less representative sample of the broader public.
A council elected from districts would almost certainly have more than one Latino (which has never happened), probably an Asian-American (which has only happened once), and a Republican or two (which hasn’t happened in decades). And of course, people from north of RM 2222 or south of the river — none of whom are on the current council. Indeed, it seems likely that, if we move to a SMD system, we will see many candidates who would likely never be elected under the current system, but whose political talents and base of support are sufficient to win a smaller-scale district race.
The perceived mismatch between city and council, and the current dominance of a relative handful of central-city and west-side constituencies, has helped keep the SMD fight alive, buoying the citizen petition drive that landed Prop. 3 on the ballot with more than 33,000 signatures.
That’s enough people — if they all voted, which is a big “if” — to pass Prop. 3 in a typical city election. But for the first time, SMD plans are sharing the ballot with a high-turnout presidential race, where many tens of thousands of voters will have never voted in an Austin city council election and may have no idea how the system works now. It’s hard to say how this long-running saga will play in front of this vast new audience.
Also new, compared to past go-rounds, is the attitude of Austin’s political elite; although there are sincere and sometimes sharp differences between supporters of the two plans on offer, there’s so far been little overt public advocacy for the status quo. Instead, the hybrid Prop. 4 has become the preferred choice of many who are concerned that a pure-SMD system would devolve into “ward politics.”
Opponents of either SMD system may feel that there’s no need to actively work against either Prop. 3 or 4, because history and inertia are on their side. But we may wake up on Nov. 7 with a whole new model of Austin city government — or starting the countdown toward bringing SMDs back for Round 8.
Mike Clark-Madison is a faculty member for Leadership Austin programs and will be a panelist at the October 10 ENGAGE Breakfast Town Hall event with KXAN News. Register for the event and learn more about these and other issues on the ballot November 6. The opinions of Leadership Austin alumni and faculty members are their own, and do not represent an official position of the organization.