Some residents voted early for the May 9 City Election at Lion's Field. Photo by Scott Ball.
Some residents voted early for the May 9 City Election at Lion's Field. Photo by Scott Ball.

It’s a statement on the dismal level of civic participation in San Antonio when election officials are pleased that turnout for the May 9 City Election might exceed single digits.

A total of 55,899 voters turned out for the early voting period, April 27-May 5, that ended Tuesday evening. That computes to 8% of San Antonio’s 693,925 registered voters, but the figure is actually lower since since some live and vote in 19 other municipalities, such as Alamo Heights, Castle Hills, Live Oak, Universal City, and Fair Oaks to name five.

Click here to access the early voting totals and totals at each of the 36 early voting sites.

Click here to enlarge.
Click here to enlarge.

“Looking at the early voting polling sites, such as Fair Oaks Ranch City Hall, Kirby City Hall, and Castle Hills City Hall, I’d guess about 7,000 of those early votes belong to those 19 so-called ‘Baby Bexars’ and not San Antonio,” said Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn F. Callanen, who said she was pleased by the overall early voting turnout.

It’s hard to get a sure fix on the numbers until all votes are in Saturday evening. Alamo Heights, for example, does not have an early voting site, and its early voters who live there tend to vote at Lion’s Field on Broadway, where San Antonio early voters also go in larger numbers. In the suburban city of Windcrest, there are no city elections in May, but the early voting site was opened and probably drew mostly nearby Eastside residents voting in the San Antonio election.

Using Callanen’s estimate would put the early voter turnout in the San Antonio election at around 7%. Adding another 40% turnout Saturday to the total would mean a 12% turnout in an election to select a mayor, 10 City Council members, and a number of other important issues, including aquifer protection, park expansion, and proposed City Charter amendments that include paying salaries to officeholders, deciding light rail oversight, and how special elections in the city are conducted.

“I’m ecstatic, that early turnout is very good. It looks like we’ll finally have an election in double figures,” Callanen said. “However, we are sharing the ballot with 19 other municipalities, so that brings the number of registered voters to more than 820,000.

“We’ve been seeing early voting numbers at about 60%, people in Bexar County like to vote early,” she added. ” I’d love to be wrong, but I think were going to be coming in at 12-13% in the City Election.”

Even with an improved turnout it means 88 out of 100 eligible voters are not participating, despite the convenience of  early voting. A recent sequence of special elections in Bexar County for vacated seats in the Texas Legislature and on City Council all failed to attract 10% of registered voters. Some of the races attracted only half that number.

A poll worker at Lion’s Field, one of the city’s most popular early voting sites, told me on the first day of early voting that most voters spend less than 10 minutes from the time they park their vehicle to the time they vote and exit in their vehicle. Her point was that convenience alone is not motivating people to turn out.

“They ought to make it a law that you have to vote to keep your driver’s license,” a fellow voter remarked, declining to provide his name when asked if I could quote him for this article.

In fact, individuals who apply for a driver’s license or to renew a license are asked by state workers if they would like to register to vote while they are obtaining their license, but even if they agree, it doesn’t mean they will vote.

Voting line at the Central Library on election day, Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Voting line at the Central Library on election day, Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Voting among college students continues to be very low, if the early voting totals at UTSA’s early voting site are any indication. More than 30,000 students attend the university, but only 620 people voted at the campus site, and presumably that turnout includes administrators, faculty and other employees. Some students undoubtedly voted by mail in the cities where they permanently reside, but most probably were too preoccupied with classes and their social lives to take the time to register and then vote.

Many election experts believe university officials do too little to make registration easier for students or to convince them of the importance of voting, perhaps fearing backlash from conservative candidates and officeholders who want to suppress turnout in an age group that tends to vote for more liberal and progressive candidates.

Civil rights groups also cite Voter ID laws and highly partisan political clashes over such as issues intimidates many inner city minority voters, especially those who are not native-born or who speak English as a second language.

What is not as arguable is that most people simply are not participating in local elections, even when the stakes are high.

Callanen also noted that San Antonio voters going to the polls Saturday should be aware that the high number of candidates running for mayor made it impossible to fit all 14 names on a single computer screen. Eleven names appear on the first page of the mayoral ballot, including the names of the four leading candidates. That is bound to confuse the casual voter who arrives at the pools uninformed or only vaguely aware of all the names on the ballot. Callanen noted that voters can reverse their actions anytime before electronically casting their ballot simply by following the prompts to review and change their ballot before pushing the “Vote” button.

Some of the candidates listed on the mayoral ballot failed to campaign and apparently filed just for the publicity or because they could do so. There are no filing fees in city races and no requirement to gather signatures, the kind of hurdles that keep gadflies and others from winning a spot on state and federal ballots. Changing the current system might require a City Charter amendment.

Analyzing Early Vote Results

It’s risky to draw any firm conclusions from early voting patterns, but it’s clear that the trend toward heavier turnout in the precincts north of Loop 410 and lower turnout in inner city precincts continues.

Brook Hollow Library near Hwy. 281 south of Loop 1604 drew the highest number of voters at 4,445. Wonderland of the Americas, formerly known as Crossroads Mall, on Loop 410, drew 3,373. That number has slipped as what once was the number one early voting site has ceded that position to locations closer to Loop 1604. Cody Library, near I-10 West and Wurzbach Parkway, drew 3,178. The Julia Yates Semmes Library, south of Loop 1604 and Rolling Oaks Mall at Comanche Lookout Park, drew 2,692. Maury Maverick Library just off Bandera Road north of Loop 1604 drew 2,577.

Inside the urban core, Lion’s Field drew the most voters at 3,049, but again, that number includes many Alamo Heights voters. The Bexar County Justice Center downtown only drew 1,331 voters. McCreless Library, just east of Hwy. 218 and South New Braunfels Street, drew 2,399, and the Tobin Library at Oakwell just inside Loop 410 drew 2,467.

Other inner city voting sites drew low number of voters. The Claude Black Center in the heart of the Eastside only drew 1,109 votes. The Copernicus Community Center, near East Houston Street and Loop 410, drew 670 voters. Edison High School on the Westside drew 580 voters. Losoya Intermediate School on the Southside drew 449 voters.

ThinkVoting, OCI Group, LWV, and Bexar County Representatives during the Voting App Launch at City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
ThinkVoting, OCI Group, LWV, and Bexar County Representatives during the Voting App Launch at City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Some in the tech community believe that only a change in state law that allows voting via smart phone apps will increase voter participation, particularly among Millennials, who tend to turn out in large numbers only when galvanized by a presidential candidate. Bexar County early voting records show that less than 5% of the voters were under the age of 35, while 80% were over the age of 50. Only 15% were ages 35-50.

For attracting more older or inner city voters, perhaps election officials should offer a Texas Lotto ticket as they exit the polls.

*Featured/top image: Some residents voted early for the May 9 City Election at Lion’s Field. Photo by Scott Ball.  

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.