June 26, 2015. The date is seared in my brain. Only six short years ago, the Supreme Court acknowledged marriage equality. And it was only last year that the court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
As a gay woman, I must educate myself on judges running for office. And when considering those who may be appointed, I consider the politicians with the power to do so. I have to know: Who will uphold my rights as a human being?
And when a vocal opponent to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance who has publicly spewed vile hatred for the LGBTQ+ community was in the running for City Council’s District 9 seat, I made sure to inform those in the district and offer pathways to vote for the incumbent. There is no room on the dais for a person who is against a large swath of our community.
In a recent column Rick Casey relies on the “uninformed voter” to ground his argument against shifting municipal elections from May to align with state and federal elections in November. “One reason people don’t vote in city elections,” he wrote, “is that they know nothing about City Council candidates and not much about mayoral candidates.”
He argued that voters’ eyes would “glaze over” by the time they reached the section for judges and City Council if local elections were added to an already lengthy ballot for state and federal elections. ”Admit it,” he chided. “You know nothing about the vast majority of judges on the ballot, so you vote based on the few things you can know: their political party, their sex, in some cases their ethnicity.”
Today, as the country examines voter rights and Texas legislators are forced back into special session to likely resuscitate a bill that will add more restrictions to voting, I am concerned that a commentary on voter turnout put the onus on an ill-defined “uninformed voter” rather than examining the responsibility of institutions.
In 2020, Bexar County saw its highest voter turnout for a presidential race and in 2021, we did it again. Last month, San Antonio had its highest voter turnout for a municipal race in as far back as the data took Bexar County Elections.
This increase has much to do with institutions taking responsibility for removing barriers to voting.
In November 2019, for example, Bexar County moved to a super precinct model, which allows voters to cast their ballots at any open precinct on election day. Total election day votes cast in the subsequent 2019 Constitutional Amendment election were more than three times those cast for the same election day in 2017. There was a 244% increase in voter turnout from the municipal election in 2011 to 2021. And we know there is still work to do to get the 17% municipal voter turnout to the 64% presidential voter turnout.
National Civic League shows that the timing of elections is the number one predictor of voter turnout, and changing local elections to coincide with major election cycles has the greatest proven impact. For a voter, city elections paired with state and federal ones would mean less transportation time to cast a ballot, less time off work to go vote, and a more concentrated study of all election information.
In San Antonio, this would mean fewer barriers for people of color.
People who live in City Council Districts 2, 3, 4, and 5 — overwhelmingly made up of the largest populations of Black and Latino San Antonians — use public transit (or carpool) twice as much as San Antonians in City Council District 9, which is also one of the only districts in San Antonio with a majority white population. Similarly, while 90% of District 9 has access to a computer and broadband internet at their household, only 55% of San Antonians in District 5 are afforded the infrastructure for the same in their homes.
In a city that is 75% people of color, older, white men make up the largest share of our electorate. This can be seen in the preponderance of voters in District 9, which had more voters than the combined totals of Council Districts 3, 4, and 5 in the May election. It is imperative we continue to break down barriers to voting so that turnout is more reflective of the people who live here.
Research shows us that when voter turnout increases, so does the political power and representation of Latinos and Black people.
Shifting election timing is an opportunity to break down more barriers. Not only are most San Antonians maneuvering systems — public transit, employment, Internet — in order to go vote, they are also voting to improve these same systems.
Lived experience is the greatest expertise. There is no one better to inform city workforce programs than workers. There is no one better to inform digital infrastructure policies than the parents and students doing homework in cars near hot spots. There is no one better to inform housing policy than the 1 in 2 renters and 1 in 5 homeowners who can’t afford where they live. There is no one better to inform transportation infrastructure than people who rely on VIA Transit to get to work 5-7 days a week.
When elected officials are making decisions that impact our daily lives — or our very rights as humans — we don’t have the luxury of being “uninformed” voters.
Ask Jalen McKee-Rodriguez about the “regular-ass” people of District 2 who just made him the first openly gay Black man elected in Texas. In fact, District 2, home to the largest population of Black San Antonians, had the largest percentage voter increase of any district in the city. This, after Fix SAPD secured 20,000 signatures to put police accountability on the ballot, and more people cast their vote on Proposition B than voted for mayor. Seems particularly informed to me.
For too many people in our community, to be informed is a matter of life or death. How then can institutions take responsibility for eliminating barriers to voting? Employers can ensure that all San Antonians have paid time off to vote. Government can minimize the number of times a voter must interact with burdensome systems by reducing the number of times we must show up at a voting center. And journalists can challenge the passive, harmful narrative of the “uninformed voter” and, instead, demand more systemic change and accountability from the institutions that serve our community.