Austin at Large: Voting From the Bottom Up
Take advantage of your downballot opportunities to create real change
Maybe I'm wrong, but I figure that most of y'all reading this don't need to be told to go vote when the time comes. You may be uncertain how to cast your ballot in these plague times, so we've made you a guide with the steps and deadlines. We'll also provide reminders as we approach Nov. 3, because things get crazy and people forget. But the principle that you should vote as an engaged citizen – you're probably good there. (There's a reason so many campaigns buy ads in this newspaper.)
As we note in our guide, we're already getting queries about endorsements from people who are ready to vote now. We get it, but slow your roll – even if you've already applied for a mail ballot, you won't receive it for at least a couple of weeks. We fear that some readers are so ready to be done with President Apesh*t that they'll give short shrift to the rest of the ballot, where (as always) their individual votes will be more important to the outcome and have more weight upon their everyday lives.
Which Way Is Down?
In an era where voting at home will inevitably become the dominant mode, the concept of "downballot" may be obsolete, since you can vote from the bottom up just as easily. If you do, for most of you, the first choice you'll make will be in a school board race. In a city where scads of voters neither own property nor have children in the schools, the temptation to blow these off is great.
But for many of those same voters, the defining issue of the moment is tackling Austin's systemic inequity, with anti-racism as a non-negotiable community value. If so, then the decisions of the school boards matter a great deal. In Austin ISD, all four trustee positions on the ballot are open, and all the candidates want the district to do better on these fronts. They will need help from everyone, not just AISD parents, to make that change happen.
The City Council, on the other hand, is already going where it's never gone before on the journey toward equity and justice. This election provides an opportunity for a referendum on its choices; though not all of you will be voting in a Council race, the entire northwest quadrant of the city will be, which traditionally sees the highest turnout, along with two districts that lay mostly east of I-35. Right now, I'd say the four incumbents on the ballot are favored, and in the one open seat, both leading candidates are promising continuity. So if you don't like what Council is doing, now is your chance to get involved, even if you don't live in one of those districts.
Painting the House Blue
Most of you don't live in a state legislative district that's in play, but those who do – in our suburbs in Williamson, western Travis, and Hays counties – need to without fail cast a ballot for the Democratic incumbents if you want to achieve the ultimate goal of flipping the Texas House. These races can be very, very close; ask Donna Howard, who survived by four (4) votes after a recount in 2011. The GOP, having already written off a couple of their most vulnerable seats elsewhere in the state, will be throwing all they've got (which is admittedly less than they claim) into these races.
Why should we care about flipping the House, with Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick still around? In addition to creating an instant roadblock to decadent culture-war bullshit, a blue House also empowers those mythical, seldom-seen creatures, the reasonable Republicans, to come out from under the rocks where they've been hiding from MAGAfied predators. The House is already more progressive than the Republican Party on issues like criminal justice; see what happens when a blue House votes to, say, decriminalize marijuana, as is supported by a solid majority of Texans. And even if the Dems don't gain the net nine seats they need for a majority, they still effectively get to choose the speaker. In a closely divided House with an open speaker's race, it's much more likely that a well-respected D like Senfronia Thompson picks up a couple of R votes than the other way around.
Nationally, party activists are focused on the Texas House as never before, for a different reason – congressional redistricting. If the Lege next year can't agree on maps for its own districts, state law punts the decision to a five-member board, at least four of whom will be Republicans. But the congressional maps go to a three-judge panel of the federal district court and then directly to the Supreme Court if those maps are challenged, as they always are, and the state always loses. Texas will likely get three new U.S. House seats, which geographically and demographically should all end up in Democratic hands if fair maps are drawn.
Ironically, the unfair maps we have now, drawn to keep the four new seats Texas got last time out of Democratic hands, have now placed most of the state's urban GOP seats at risk as the suburbs continue to break blue. That includes the districts where most of you live; not one of the five(!) Republican seats that include parts of heavily Democratic Austin is really safe. Now, a fair map come 2021 would likely split Austin into three safe blue districts rather than six marginal ones, but that's going to be influenced by who the incumbents are, so your vote now matters – even if you never make it to the top of the ballot.