A sign indicates where to vote at Brook Hollow Library.
A sign indicates where to vote at Brook Hollow Library on San Antonio's Northside during the a 2018 election. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As the election for mayor and City Council heads to conclusion Saturday, it looks like another pathetic turnout. As I write this after five days of early voting with only two days left, only 35,003 of San Antonio’s one million-plus voters have cast their ballots.

To put that in perspective, that number could be doubled by early-vote closing time Tuesday and still not equal the 2017 early vote of 77,589. And 2017 wasn’t exactly a banner year. Only about 39,000 voted on Election Day for a total turnout of just 11 percent.

To be sure, it has not been a barn-burner of a campaign. While serious issues are at stake, most of the media coverage has centered around a fast-food contract at the airport and a couple of old and missing domestic violence police reports.

I have received nothing in my mailbox from Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and I believe the only four mailers supporting challenger Greg Brockhouse have come from the police union’s political action committee.

Brockhouse has done no television advertising, and Nirenberg’s small buy has been easy to miss. The only televised confrontation between the two candidates is scheduled for Thursday on KLRN – just in time to inform a portion of the one-third of voters who haven’t already voted and may show up Saturday.

Both sides say they are going heavy on social media, but the median age of the San Antonio voter in municipal elections is 63.

Still, there is one important thing to remember about San Antonio’s anemic turnout in city elections: We are not alone. We are not even the worst. For that we can thank Dallas and Fort Worth.

Three years ago, political scientists at Portland State University studied the most recent city elections in the nation’s 30 largest cities. How did San Antonio do?

We were fourth from the bottom in turnout with 11 percent. Only Las Vegas, Fort Worth, and Dallas fared worse, the last two at 6 percent. And our median age of 63 was younger only than Miami, Las Vegas, and Fort Worth. Dallas was close behind at 62.

But the reality is that municipal voting has plummeted since the decline of the old party machines. In San Antonio, that came in the early 1950s when the city charter was changed to a nonpartisan council-manager form of government. The idea was to take politics out of city government. Now only about a quarter of registered voters nationally take part in municipal elections.

Presidential elections are often seen as a moral drama, a considerable booster to citizen participation. City elections may have at least as much impact on our lives, but they no longer tend to be populist affairs. The nuts and bolts of paving streets and promoting local economic development rarely provoke a great deal of emotion on Election Day.

In post-World War II history, high turnout in mayoral elections tends to have been driven by racial issues, much of it during the extended period of unrest associated with the civil rights movement.

In 1969, Los Angeles turned out 76 percent of its voters for a race between mild-mannered City Councilman Tom Bradley and Sam Yorty, a race-baiting populist who said the city was threatened by “a combination of bloc voting, black power, left-wing radicals, and if you please, identified communists.” Yorty won, but Bradley beat him four years later to become LA’s first black mayor.

That same year, New York had a turnout of 81 percent to re-elect Mayor John Lindsay, who defeated two challengers talking tough on crime in a way that was seen as racial dog-whistling.

Philadelphia hit a record 77 percent turnout in 1971 when former police chief Frank Rizzo ran an anti-civil rights campaign. And Chicago hit 82 percent to elect Harold Washington as its first black mayor in 1983.

San Antonio’s modern record came in 1981 when Henry Cisneros won a landslide victory with a 43 percent turnout. This was not so much a matter of racial tension as of pent-up aspirations among an Hispanic majority that largely had been shut out until the mid-1970s. The 33-year-old Harvard graduate carried 40 percent of the Anglo vote, but raised Hispanic turnout by 50 percent and carried all of it.

By comparison, voter turnout in the last four city general elections has ranged from 6.9 percent in 2013, when Julián Castro ran effectively unopposed, all the way up to 11.9 percent in 2015, when appointed incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor faced three veterans (State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, former State Rep. Mike Villarreal, and former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson) in an astonishingly lackluster campaign.

There’s a danger in such low-turnout elections. A relatively small but highly motivated group has the opportunity to have an outsized impact, either through getting out a few thousand extra voters (not an easy task) or through spending a relatively large amount of outside money on the election, such as the police and fire unions appear to be doing in this race. We won’t know until after the election just how much they spent – though it may well be more than either candidate – and how effectively they spent it.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.