City politics stifling student votes

Samantha Katsounas

While many UT students geared up for a trip to Dallas on Friday, Austin’s City Council made a controversial and highly questionable decision regarding a seemingly innocuous topic: election dates. Instead of moving the 2012 municipal elections to November, the council voted 4-3 to keep them in May. The highly symbolic move significantly limits the principle of democracy in Austin while simultaneously creating a de facto limitation on the student vote.

A new state law allows for cities to move their municipal elections from May to November. The arguments in favor of such a move are numerous and incontrovertible. In the last city council election, an abysmal 7.4 percent of registered Austin residents voted, according to city data. In stark contrast, November elections in Travis County have consistently seen voter turnout above 30 percent. It would make sense that elected officials would be in support of an opportunity to engage more citizens in voting during municipal elections. However, four of our council members apparently disagree.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and council members Bill Spelman, Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison have cited concern over violating Austin’s charter as the reason for their opposition. Cole said that a vote “against the charter provision” would go against her mandate as an elected municipal official in Austin, according to the Austin American-Statesman. However, this reasoning is blatantly illogical. SB 100, the state resolution that legitimizes the move, specifically declares that the state law “supersedes a city charter provision that requires a different general election date.”

So why are these four council members still opposed when their stated rationale is patently illegitimate? To be fair, they have expressed a desire for formal voter approval, but the issue is much more complicated than it seems. According to the Statesman, Spelman argued recently that “we’re not doing [voters] any favors” by moving the election to November, implying that the electorate doesn’t endorse the switch. In actuality, a poll by Littlefield Research proved that 75 percent of traditional Austin municipal voters support the November election. How can a measure that involves more citizens in the decision-making process and is overwhelmingly supported by those same citizens do a disservice to the population? As is the case in most matters concerning elections, it seems the culprit is political ambition.

The feigned concern about the charter seems to be merely a symptom of self-interest on the part of some council members. Austin’s so-called political “elites” have traditionally wielded considerable power in May elections. It turns out that support from these Democratic clubs and organizations is “key to the prospects of Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman,” who are considering running against current Mayor Lee Leffingwell next year, according to the Statesman.

Their refusal to move the election to November can be seen as a political move calculated to undermine Leffingwell. It’s a travesty of democracy when dissatisfaction with a mayor, whether justified or not, supplants the desire to enhance the level of public involvement in elections.

For students, the issue is of particular concern. Currently, the May elections fall during finals week. College students, usually sleep-deprived and singularly-focused during their exams, do not have the opportunity to participate in elections as they might if the election were at another time. Likewise, any possible run-off elections take place during June, a time when most students go back home or are away on vacation. Moving the election to November would substantially increase the number of students able to vote.

Moreover, keeping the election in May is not just damaging to democracy and voter involvement generally; it is also economically negligent. Refusing to move the election to November will cost the city around $1 million in new voting equipment, said Travis County clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, according to Community Impact Newspaper. Just a few months ago, massive cuts were made to many city programs because of a lack of funding. Paying extra money to have fewer people vote is an idea that has rightfully been described by Leffingwell as “fiscally irresponsible.”

The hard facts in favor of the November election heavily outweigh the arguments made by proponents of the status quo. Keeping municipal elections in May during 2012 will preserve low levels of voter turnout and cost the city money. Councilwoman Laura Morrison wrote in a Statesman column last week, “There is no compelling or pragmatic reason” to shift the election date. If saving money and involving more people in voting are not compelling enough reasons, what are? As long as our city council members are willing to perpetuate low voter turnout, students have every reason to be worried.

Katsounas is a business and government sophomore.