Mayoral candidates (from left) John Velasquez, Ron Nirenberg, Matt Piña, Greg Brockhouse, Tim Atwood, Carlos Castanuela, Bert Cecconi, and Antonio "Tony" Diaz.
Mayoral candidates (from left) John Velasquez, Ron Nirenberg, Matt Piña, Greg Brockhouse, Tim Atwood, Carlos Castanuela, Bert Cecconi, and Antonio "Tony" Diaz speak at a debate on April 15, 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A predictable 85 percent to 90 percent of registered voters in the city of San Antonio will likely choose not to vote in the May 4 city election. Much is at stake: selection of a mayor, City Council members, school board trustees, yet turnout is likely to be minimal.

Even giving voters eight different calendar dates to get to a polling site is unlikely to boost turnout. Early voting has steadily gained traction among those who do vote, but it has not substantively increased turnout.

Early voting in this year’s May 4 city and school board elections begins Monday, April 22, and ends April 30. Here are the early polling sites. The final day for election officials to receive mail-in ballots is May 4. Voters can consult the Rivard Report’s 2019 Election Guide for information on the candidates in each race.

I’ve been looking at nearly a quarter century of local election results, some years featuring intensely contested elections, others that were foregone re-elections of incumbents. The voter turnout varies only by 10 percent at most, regardless. Not a single local election in the time period I studied showed even 20 percent of the eligible voters going to the polls. Most local elections draw closer to 10 to 11 percent, some even less.

The 2005 race for mayor was the high-water mark for voter enthusiasm. Almost 18 percent of the city’s then-650,000 eligible voters turned out, inspired by City Councilman Julián Castro’s first run for mayor. He finished first with 42 percent of the vote, not enough for a first-round win. Outside candidate Phil Hardberger, a successful plaintiffs attorney and retired appeals court judge, finished second with 30 percent. City Councilman Carroll Shubert, the business community’s choice, finished third with 26 percent. Four other candidates accounted for the balance.

Hardberger beat Castro by 3 percent in the runoff, which drew 18.8 percent of registered voters. From then on, voter turnout for local elections has steadily declined with each two-year election cycle in San Antonio.

Hardberger easily won a second term in 2007 with 77 percent of the vote and a 10 percent turnout.

Former San Antonio Mayors (from left) Phil Hardberger, County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Julian Castro.
Former San Antonio Mayors (from left) Phil Hardberger, County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Julián Castro. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

With Hardberger term-limited to two, two-year stints as mayor, Castro ran again in 2009 and won election in the first round with 56 percent of the vote and an 12 percent turnout. Two years later he won re-election in 2011 with 81 percent of the vote and a 7 percent turnout. With term limits relaxed to four, two-year terms, thanks to a Hardberger initiative to amend the city charter in his final term, Castro ran for a third time in 2013, receiving 67 percent of the vote, again with only a 7 percent turnout.

Castro left before the end of his third term to join the Obama administration as Housing and Urban Development secretary. Councilwoman Ivy Taylor (D2) was elected by her City Council colleagues to complete that unfinished term, based in no small part on her promise not to seek a full term in the 2015 election.

As the filing deadline approached, Taylor broke her promise and entered a crowded field of challengers, including former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, former state Rep. Michael Villarreal, and former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.

Taylor finished 2,000 votes ahead of Villarreal to make a the runoff with Van de Putte, but then prevailed in the second round of voting. The runoff total attracted 14 percent of registered voters, compared to about 12 percent in the first round.

Taylor, a reluctant campaigner and seen as vulnerable in 2017, was challenged by then-City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manual Medina. A little more than 11 percent of register voters turned out for the first round. Taylor finished almost 5,000 votes ahead of Nirenberg, but Nirenberg won the runoff by a landslide 9 percentage points. Once again, the runoff drew slightly more voters, this time more than 13 percent.

Outgoing Mayor Ivy Taylor gives Mayor-elect Ron Nirenberg the certificate of election, marking the beginning of his term in office.
Outgoing Mayor Ivy Taylor gives Mayor-elect Ron Nirenberg the certificate of election, marking the beginning of his term in office in 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

If voter participation is the measure, our system for electing mayors and council members is broken. Ditto with school board elections. Media campaigns, candidate debates and forums, grassroots block-walking, phone banks, expensive mailers – none of it is energizing greater participation.

The Rivard Report hosted a mayoral debate with incumbent Nirenberg and challenger Greg Brockhouse (D6) Wednesday evening at the historic Spire, an event center in St. Paul Square that once served as San Antonio’s first African-American church. It was the latest in a series of neighborhood-level civic engagement events.

More than 350 people registered to obtain a free ticket, a cocktail or beer, and for members, a Rivard Report Fiesta medal. Yet the turnout was 100-plus, meaning the majority of registrants decided they had something else better to do. The debate was livestreamed on Facebook. Both candidates acquitted themselves well. Security had to escort out one shouting disrupter, but that was more amusing than distracting. Most attendees stayed to the end, many lingering to visit with the candidates. People were animated and expressed gratitude as we bid them farewell at the door.

The event was only one of many the two candidates – and in some instances, the other seven individuals whose names appear on the ballot for mayor – have participated in this election season. I doubt the majority of readers of this column has been to any of them. It’s a ritual that mattered far more one century ago than it matters now. We’d have to make it a Netflix series to draw real attention now.

Nothing substantive is being done to study this failure in participatory democracy at the local level. A bipartisan blue-ribbon committee would surely conclude that legislative gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts in Austin, poor education outcomes in the city’s minority population, election fatigue, and citizen inertia all play a part in the problem.

A move to four-year terms would produce more seasoned mayors and council members, and reduce the millions of dollars the city and county spend on elections every two years. Moving the election date to November to coincide with state and national elections also would boost turnout and interest.

The biggest missed opportunity might be the failure to experiment more aggressively with technology solutions that would allow anyone with access to a smartphone or other identifiable device connected to the internet to register and vote on-demand within a two-week election period. Social media and push-and-pull technology could do more to educate and animate prospective voters than all the mailers and television ads in the world, and at far less cost.

After the election dust settles, the mayor and council ought to convene a body to figure out a better way. We do not need a 30-year plan. We need to study best practices elsewhere, take some risks, and embrace technology.

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.