Prop D Would Move Vote for Austin Mayor to Presidential Election Years

GoodPolitics founder Nathan Ryan weighs in on a May 1 ballot measure

By Nathan Ryan
Photographs courtesy of GoodPolitics
GoodPolitic’s Nathan Ryan

Nathan Ryan is the CEO of Austin-based consulting firm Blue Sky Partners, a co-founder of GoodPolitics and a commissioner on Austin’s Economic Prosperity Commission and the Urban Transportation Commission. He’s written about the importance of local politics for Tribeza and elsewhere, including a piece on Proposition B, the controversial camping ban that’s on the ballot May 1 in Austin. Also on the ballot is Proposition D, which Ryan writes about exclusively for Tribeza below. Election Day is Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Travis County. Click here for information on how to vote. And be sure to review everything that’s on the ballot before you get to the polls.

I worked the polls during the November 2020 election, and it was anything but typical. There was one way in which it resembled every other presidential election, however: high voter turnout.

Seventy-one percent of Travis County voters cast ballots – the result of extraordinary work by volunteers, campaign staffers and elected officials across the county, who mobilized voters in the middle of a pandemic.

The high turnout was also a testament to voters themselves, who rose to the defense of our democracy, overcame fear and efforts to suppress the vote to ensure their ballots were counted.

It was the highest voter turnout in recent history, but it was also the latest example in a decades-old trend. Turnout in presidential elections is always higher than in any other election, including November midterm elections. Over the last fifteen years, the turnout in presidential years has been twenty percentage points higher than the turnout in midterms. In Austin, that means more than 100,000 additional voters participate in presidential years.

And not only is the presidential electorate larger, it’s also more diverse in terms of income, age and race. Lower-income voters, younger voters, Latino voters, Black voters and Asian-American voters are all more represented in the presidential-year electorate than in any other.

Presidential elections are when the electorate in Austin looks most like Austin – and yet, we elect our mayor in midterm years. Our city’s highest elected official (and the only one elected citywide) is chosen in an election in which the voters are whiter, wealthier and older than the city as a whole. It’s an election in which more than 100,000 Austin voters do not participate.

On May 1, we have an opportunity to expand our democracy. Prop D will move our mayoral elections to presidential years, thus ensuring that our city’s highest elected official is chosen by our city’s largest and more representative electorate.

It’s a simple solution to a big problem.

Here’s how it will work: voting “yes” on Prop D will mean that our next mayor (the one we’re scheduled to elect in 2022) will serve for two years, allowing us to hold another mayoral election in 2024, and every four years thereafter.

Opponents to this reform make two arguments. The first is that we should make no accommodation to voters who fail to vote in midterm elections. If those voters miss out on voting for the mayor, the argument goes, that’s their choice. I believe this argument comes from a place of privilege and ignores the realities that keep many of our neighbors from voting – inflexible jobs, caregiving responsibilities, mobility challenges, etc. If our election schedule leads to chronically low turnout, it’s a problem for all of us. We recognized this once before when we moved our local elections from May to November. Prop D is the next step.

The second argument opponents deploy against this reform is that our mayoral election will be consumed by the presidential race and Austinites will not be informed about the local issues on the ballot. This argument again mirrors arguments made against moving our elections to November. Then, opponents of the move argued that November voters would be “less informed” than the May electorate. I believe the argument was elitist then, and it’s elitist now. Frequent voters cannot presume more knowledge or righteousness than infrequent voters. At most, they can presume they have different opinions or experiences, and it is precisely those different opinions and experiences that our democracy should work to include.

We need a more accessible, responsive and representative democracy. Forces in our country – and in Texas – are trying to move us in the other direction. A “Yes” on Prop D will help us move forward, not backward, by making sure that more Austin voters have a say in choosing our mayors.


Read More From the Spring Style Issue | April 2021


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