May 1 Special Election Results: Austin Voters Tell City Leaders What They Don't Like
Strong-mayor proposal fails spectacularly, while voters say "yes" to reinstating public camping ban
The big news on Saturday night was the result that many political observers expected: a solid win for Proposition B, the measure to reinstate Austin's ordinances that restrict public camping, panhandling, and other aspects of homelessness, with criminal penalties for violators. The policy ramifications of this are already playing out this week at Council (see "Austin at Large"), but Save Austin Now, the largely Republican campaign to overturn the city's 2019 moves to decriminalize homelessness, was more focused on the politics on election night, with its highest-profile supporter – Gov. Greg Abbott – crowing on Twitter about the "stern rebuke" delivered to City Hall. The campaign's $1 million in spending did, it appears, drive at least some people to the polls who would normally sit out a May special election; the total turnout of 22.6% countywide (about 90% of which was city voters) was the highest Austin's seen in a May election since 1994. The last mayoral election held in May, in 2012, saw a 10.7% turnout.
Prop B banked its margin of victory in early voting; the Homes Not Handcuffs campaign against it, which got a late start, does appear to have boosted election day turnout, which broke firmly against the measure. But it wasn't enough, especially as Central Austin voters in precincts that would normally be dependably "progressive" took this opportunity to give City Hall's homelessness strategy a failing grade. Interestingly, the same voters delivered a solid victory for Proposition C, which gives more independence and influence to the city's Office of Police Oversight, and an even bigger victory to Austin's firefighters, the only city employees with collective bargaining rights that will now be even more useful. – M.C.M.
F Is for Fail
By a little after 7pm Saturday night, it was clear from early vote totals that Austinites for Progressive Reform's "strong mayor" proposal (Proposition F) was failing spectacularly. Bo Delp, organizer with By the People ATX, called it a "repudiation" of Prop F's provision that a future strong mayor could veto decisions made by City Council, the main message his team had been using to urge Austinites to reject the proposal. Others, such as labor leader Jeremy Hendricks, pointed to a lack of authentic community engagement from APR as it crafted its proposals last fall: "The last thing we want is millionaires and tech CEOs telling us what they think is good for us."
By the time votes were cast on election day, APR was being out-hustled by two different campaigns against Prop F: By the People ATX, largely backed by labor groups (including those representing city employees), and Austin for All People, primarily backed by the city's business community. Nico Ramsey of Austin for All People celebrated the voters' affirmation of the 10-1 district Council system, created by charter amendments approved in 2012, that "guarantee[s] ... representation in every part of Austin, not a consolidation of power into one individual that we hope [shares] the interests of others in this city."
Andrew Allison, APR's creator and leader, views Prop F's failure as "a vote against that particular solution, not a vote for the status quo," and imagines that a tweaked proposal directly addressing concerns like the mayoral veto could fare better. But Jim Wick, APR's campaign manager, says the "goal of this campaign wasn't [just] to pass strong mayor." Wick resents the opposition's claim that the other propositions were "window dressing" for Prop F; he says APR knew that was going to fail months ago, and began directing its resources toward the other charter amendments the group had placed on the ballot. Most notable among these was Proposition H, the "Democracy Dollars" public campaign finance proposal, which also enjoyed support from activists who were working to defeat Prop F.
Prop H didn't quite make it, but most agree that a public campaign finance plan is likely to come back. (The last ballot initiative for such a plan was defeated in 2002.) "It'll be brought back by the people," says Hendricks, "not by a small group of folks in the back room." Allison attributes Prop H's failure to the "less 'capital-D' Democratic" electorate in this election – brought out by the high-dollar campaign for Proposition B – and thinks it "could pass handily in a higher-turnout election." And Proposition G, the creation of a new Council district, could succeed if presented on its own, he says, with a provision for an odd number of Council seats. As Austin continues to grow, Allison hopes "there is an appetite in the community and on Council to consider expanding the number of seats to ensure that our districts remain representative."
The other two measures in the APR package, Propositions D and E, did pass – to move Austin mayoral elections to presidential years and, should Council so choose, to institute a ranked choice voting system in lieu of run-off elections. Allison believes that as a home rule city, Austin can amend its charter in ways that don't conflict with state law, which is silent about RCV, so it's up to Council to determine next steps. (This would also need to involve Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, master of all local elections.)
Early in APR's campaign, the Chronicle claimed in a headline that Prop F "divides Austin's progressives." In retrospect, Hendricks says, it was quite the opposite: "It actually brought us all together, stronger than ever." Though widespread distrust of APR was apparent, their ideas may well persist; the passage of Propositions D and E "sets an example for other cities in Texas ... that cities aren't powerless," says Wick. "In this fight over democracy that we see happening in other states, in our state, on a national level – we can do stuff." – L.F.
MAY 1 SPECIAL ELECTION RESULTS CITY OF AUSTIN PROPOSITIONS
Travis and Williamson county precincts. Early vote totals include mail ballots; election day totals include provisional ballots.