“Everything’s bigger in Texas.” That’s been an unofficial slogan for the Lone Star State for as long as I can remember, and it’s true in so many ways. We have the second largest land mass of any state, and the second largest population. We have the 10th largest economy in the world, ahead of Australia and Russia. But there is one thing in Texas that isn’t that big - our voter turnout, and low voter turnout can have dire consequences, especially in local elections.
To see the detrimental effect low turnout can have on small communities, let’s look at an example outside the Lone Star State. In 2005, the town of Bell, California held a special local election to approve a newly written town charter that would allow the city to pass ordinances and make law for itself, instead of being limited by the state’s rules for smaller, general law cities. Of 36,000 residents, only 390 people voted: 334 for and 56 against.
The story is a familiar one: publicity for the election was abysmal, and the issue was a complex, obscure one, about which many felt they were uneducated. Because of that, most people chose to stay home, feeling they didn’t understand it enough to voice an opinion.
The devil was in the details. The city council’s draft of the proposed charter included exorbitant taxpayer-funded salaries, topping $750,000 a year. The proposed the election system for the city council was set up so that any one seat only really required around 300 votes for the incumbent to stay in power. As if to add insult to injury, the charter also authorized the city to charge its (largely economically disadvantaged) residents the highest property tax rates in the state.
Most of the city council members in Bell were eventually found guilty of fraud, but it is vital to understand the complicity of low voter turnout in what happened. The council members understood they could count on voters to stay home; they exploited voters’ trust and took advantage of them, with their implied consent. That’s the bottom line. When we choose not to engage in an election, we are still responsible for the result.
In Texas, November general elections in presidential election years, barely cross 50% of registered voters. But the vote you cast for president is, mathematically, the least impactful vote you can cast in a -4-year period. Not only is it just one vote among tens of millions, it is impacting the level of government that, despite how the news cycle makes it appear, has the least influence on the quality of life you experience on a day to day basis.
County commissioners, city councilmembers and mayors, on the other hand, make decisions on regulations dictating your quality of life: when and how your streets are paved, what kind of housing will be available, and what sort of bags you may use when shopping. Your school board determines the quality of education your children receive and set the tax rate for more than half of your property bill – which you will pay whether you have children in school or not.
All of these major decisions and more are made by less than a dozen people, and each one of the elections for these offices often turn on just a few votes. A small, tireless minority can swing a local election, and therefore set policy for two to four years or more.
These local officials exercise enormous power over our lives, and these elections deserve as much if not more attention and scrutiny as the race for President of the United States.
Right now, in Williamson County, there are four key races for city council seats: one in Round Rock, and three in Cedar Park. You, the voter, have an obligation and a duty to do your research to make an informed decision. Your vote will have a lasting impact, as each elected council-member makes decisions affecting you and your neighbors; likewise, should you choose not to vote, that decision will have ramifications.
For those of you in Round Rock, the candidates for City Council Place 3 are Matt Baker and Cam Scott.
For those of you in Cedar Park, your candidates for City Council Place 2 are Mel Kirkland and Michael Thompson; Place 4, Michael Guevara and Patrick Walz, and Place 6, Dorian Chavez and Shellie Hayes-McMahon.
You have their names and you know how important this decision is. Look them up, decide whose values align with yours. Then, for the good of our communities, please vote.