We are one month away from the start of early voting (April 24-May 2) for the May 6 General Election for Mayor, City Council, and the 2017 $850 million bond. People eligible to vote have until April 6, 30 days before election day, to register to vote.

Most of you reading this column who live in the city of San Antonio will head to the polls. Our annual surveys show most of our readers have a college education and most vote. Most of the city’s eligible voters, however, will not, despite all that is at stake.

The National Snapshot

It isn’t simply because local elections draw fewer voters than national elections, although that is true. A larger, more disturbing reality is at play. Texans turned out in fewer numbers (51.6%) for the November 2016 Presidential Election than any other state except West Virginia and Hawaii. Even after a campaign as contentious as the one waged by candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, barely half of eligible Texans bothered to vote.

With 74.8%, Minnesota enjoyed the highest voter turnout last November. It was one of five states that broke the 70% mark, with 30 more states and the District of Columbia exceeding 60%, or coming within a few decimal points. That’s 35 states and the District of Columbia showing up for strong turnouts.

Readers who want to dig deeper into the November 2016 data can visit NonprofitVote.org, a nonpartisan source of voter data. The organization offers a rich array of tools for nonprofits in each state to improve voter turnout numbers and address the issues preventing or interfering with people voting.

Is A One-Party State a Democracy?

Many people in Texas have adopted a “what’s the point” attitude after decades of life in a one-party state where Republicans control all aspects of state government and make little pretense of promoting a two-party system. Conservative Democrats also acted as a one-party state in their day, but that does not justify a continuation of such practices.

Today, the focus is not on good governance and building a competitive, well-educated state for the future. The focus is on maintaining control at all costs: gerrymandering voting districts; running primaries that appeal to the ruling party’s most extreme voters; spending tens and hundreds of millions of dollars engaging in negative media campaigns; repressing minority turnout with Voter ID laws; and spending much of the time when legislators meet once every two years focused on issues like the “bathroom bill” rather than public education.

Texas shares one thing in common with the other bottom-dwelling states: most are not competitive, two-party states.

The Failure to Embrace Technology to Improve Turnout

You only have to walk through a public place with everyone staring at smart phones to see that technology is changing almost everything in our daily lives – except citizen engagement. Government is not innovative. It’s bureaucratic and resistant to change. Government is generally the last adapter of new technologies.

I know: the military, NASA, intelligence agencies, and entities like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Health are exceptions to the rule. But government, particularly that sector that delivers constituent services, be it the Veterans Administration or city hall, resists innovation at all costs. Try getting a city parking permit, which requires a trip to a City-owned downtown garage. Sorry, no credit cards or cash apps accepted.

Have You Seen the May 6 Ballot?

Changing the law for how candidates get on local ballots would be a better investment of time and money. In San Antonio, that would require a change to the City Charter. I would argue it is long overdue, and if we soon revisit term limits and change the current four two-year terms to two four-year terms, we also could update eligibility standards for candidates.

Right now, it’s far too easy for individuals who have no intention of campaigning for city office to get their names on the ballot. Why would they do such a thing? Many reasons: For some, it’s a vanity issue. Others do so to help another candidate siphon off votes from a competitor by colluding to create name confusion. Some simply want to put on their résumé that they ran for office.

Federal and state ballots set higher hurdles. Click here to read the very few qualifications required for running for mayor or City Council in San Antonio. Basically, any citizen and resident of the city 18 years older who is not a convicted felon or found by a court to be mentally incompetent can show up at the City Clerk’s office during the filing period and get on the ballot. All you need is $25 to pay for the paperwork package.

Almost every local election includes revelations that one or more candidates do not actually live in the council district where they are seeking election, yet the City Clerk does not investigate such allegations even when such charges have obvious merit. Media exposés or expensive court challenges are the only ways to out an imposter.

Almost every local election includes mentally incompetent candidates, but without a legal finding, no one is going to openly state or publish the obvious about a mentally imbalanced candidate, which could lead to a libel lawsuit.

Here’s the final kicker: Most of the candidates on the ballot for mayor and City Council races make no effort to campaign for the office. That doesn’t mean they don’t wreak havoc.

There are three people running credible campaigns for mayor: Mayor Ivy Taylor, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), and Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina. Yet there are 14 candidates on the ballot. None of the other 11 candidates have the resources, political organization, or in multiple cases, inclination, to mount a campaign.

Mayoral Candidates, from left, Chairman Manuel Medina, Mayor Ivy Taylor, and Councilman Councilman Ron Nirenberg gather before the San Antonio Mayoral Debate on March 2.
From left: Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina, Mayor Ivy Taylor, and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) wait to take the stage for a mayoral debate on March 2. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County voting computers only hold 11 names per screen, and name order on the ballot is determined by a random drawing. That means Taylor, the incumbent mayor, who drew the 12th position, will not appear until the second page. Many voters might select a candidate on the first page without realizing there is a second page and even seeing her name.

I invite all readers to page through the ballot, district by district, until you reach the mayor’s race. It will shorten your time when you go to vote.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) drew the last spot on the ballot against five challengers, one of whom happens to be named Ross Treviño. Hmm. Coincidence, or is the candidate working in concert with another challenger to siphon off vote via name confusion among casual voters?

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) is running against six other candidates, none of whom register as serious challengers. Districts 6, 8, 9, and 10, are open seats, and feature, respectively, eight, six, 10, and 10 candidates.

Get ready for runoff elections.

Charter reform is necessary not merely to eliminate nuisance candidates. Taxpayers are watching millions of dollars go down the drain by holding elections every two years, with many resulting in expensive runoffs and others leading to special elections when incumbents leave office to pursue another elected office. The people we elect, moreover, are forced to spend far more of their time raising funds and campaigning when they should be governing.

Most people eligible to vote will not show up at the polls by May 6. There are lots of reason why, and we are not doing anything about it.

Poll Intimidation

Even for those who do make it the polls, it can be a less than inspiring experience. I voted early in the bowels of the Bexar County Justice Center in November, adjacent to that horrible cafeteria that feeds County workers, jury pools, and other visitors a steady diet of industrial, unhealthy, and unappealing fare. Pack your own lunch if you are going.

On this particular day of early voting, a poll worker walked up and down the line of waiting voters bellowing in an authoritative voice: “You must have a valid Texas driver’s license to vote. Get out your valid Texas driver’s license…”

“Actually, that is not true, ” I interrupted her, stepping out of line and speaking loudly enough for other voters to hear me. A uniformed deputy sheriff took a step closer to me as if I posed a threat. He backed off as he realized I was speaking in a normal, unthreatening voice and just might know what I was talking about. “You do not need a valid driver’s license,” I told people, most of them averting eye contact, made nervous by my challenge. I cited the various other forms of acceptable identification.

To her credit, the poll worker said she would check later with an election judge, but that sort of ignorance, twinned with her projection of petty authority, is exactly the kind of intimidation that keeps Spanish language-dominant citizens away from the polls. Have you ever been yelled at by an authority figure in a language where you lack fluency? It’s intimidating, especially when a man in uniform with a sidearm is standing a few feet away.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.