Mayoral candidate and District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg and incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor (right) are heading for a runoff election to be decided on June 10th.
Mayoral candidate and District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg and incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor (right) are heading for a runoff election to be decided on June 10th. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Jacquelyn Callanen will return to work on Monday and start preparing for the possibility of something that happens only rarely: More people showing up to vote in a runoff election than for the general election.

Callanen is the Bexar County Elections administrator, a public official who usually attracts little notice, which means she and her team are doing their job well. Between now and June 10, elections administrators will prepare for runoffs in the San Antonio mayor’s race and in City Council Districts 1, 2, 6, 8, 9, and 10.

That bodes for an improved turnout, with the three suburban districts of 8, 9, and 10 traditionally accounting for more votes than the other seven districts combined. Registered voters who skipped the general election have the legal right to vote in the runoffs. Even unregistered voters have until May 10 – 30 days before the runoff election – to register and vote in this next round.

All that suggests the head-to-head mayor’s race and close battles in a majority of the 10 council districts will present a high stakes scenario that will excite and motivate voters, many of whom sat out the first round.

“It happens very rarely, but it does happen, and I’m going to say we are going to plan on it happening this time,” Callanen told me Sunday in a post-election interview. “There are fewer people on the ballot, which makes it easier for voters to focus. I am hoping for a higher turnout.”

How many stayed home for the first round of voting? The numbers are not pretty.

With various other municipalities and school districts holding elections and the Alamo Colleges $450 million bond election, a total of 116,212 people voted in Bexar County, only 11.32% of the county’s 1,026,817 registered voters.

More was at stake for San Antonio voters: the mayoral and City Council races, the $850 million bond, the Alamo Colleges $450 million bond, and some school district races. A total of 100,433 city residents voted, accounting for 86% of the county’s total vote. There are 751,757 registered voters in the city, so the turnout here was somewhat better at 13.36%.

Surely a “too close to call” head-to-head race for mayor in San Antonio should draw more than 13% of the registered voters.

Mayor Ivy Taylor finished first in a crowded and confusing field of 14 candidates with 42% of the vote, which means 58% of those who voted in the mayor’s race did not support her re-election. Councilman Ron Nirenberg was only five percentage points behind her, finishing with a surprisingly strong 37% of the vote. That could signal an upset in the making.

Third place finisher Manuel Medina, the Bexar County Democratic Party chairman, finished with 15% of the vote. He said in his concession speech that he will not endorse Taylor or Nirenberg. That won’t stop both candidates from trying to win those voters and the 5% that went to the 11 other candidates whose names were on the ballot.

Taylor won’t be easy to defeat. The incumbent’s team wasted no time in sending out a Sunday rallying email calling for support that included a negative attack targeting Nirenberg as a do-nothing councilman. Most political consultants will tell you the road to victory is paved with negative attacks, regardless of how much the media or public decry such tactics.

Nirenberg, however, will be infused with a sense of being able to accomplish the near-impossible: knocking off an incumbent who has not been weakened by scandal or political disaster.

Both candidates will be scrambling to raise funds for new television ads, mailers, and get-out-the-vote efforts, and they have very little time to get that done. While the election is June 10, a little more than one month away, early voting will start in just over three weeks on Tuesday, May 30, the day after Memorial Day.

Early voting will run Tuesday, May 30 through Saturday, June 3. It will resume Monday, June 5 for three days. Early voting sites have not yet been designated by the City, but Callanen said she expects there to be 23 early voting sites out of the 43 used for the May 6 early voting. Each council district will have at least two early voting sites.

If current trends continue, early voting one day will simply be voting. More than 70% of the people who voted in the May 6 election voted early or among the 10,000 people 65 or older, disabled, or traveling who requested ballots by mail. Fewer and fewer people are waiting until election day to cast their vote.

There is a significant cost for the County and the participating municipalities and school districts to open voting sites in the County’s 716 precincts, of which 565 are in San Antonio. Do the math: with 38,633 people voting on election day that means an average of 54 voters per precinct or voting site. Some sites draw more, others less, but clearly, it’s a huge expense and logistical undertaking for such minimal participation.

“Our voters have embraced early voting. They like voting early, when and where they want,” Callanen said. “We’ve seen our voting by mail go up dramatically. Our voters 65 and older are eligible to vote by mail. We had the highest-ever vote by mail numbers. 68,000 voted early in the mayor’s race, 8,500 by mail.

“We mailed out 10,000 [ballots] by mail to voters 65 or older, to disabled voters, and to voters traveling out of town,” she added. “That was huge for us. Baby Boomers are making sure they have a ballot and get to vote, no matter what.”

Not everyone is voting with the same fervor or dedication.

“Sixty-five percent of the early voting in person was 55 and over, while the 24 and under early voting was less than 3%,” Callanen said. “For planning purposes, I have to look at the dynamic of the vote by mail process and assume it is just going to get bigger and better understood.”

The County’s  2,842 machines are now 15 years old and need to be replaced. That will cost $11-12 million. The County recoups some of that cost via the fees the various municipalities and school districts are charged each election. State law allows the County to charge the users 10% of the machine’s original cost for each use. Bexar County goes easy on its users, charging only 5%.

Once new machines are purchased, Callanen said Bexar County will no longer have to staff so many near-empty polling sites on Election Day.

“We will see Bexar County going to the model of super precincts or vote centers, which some counties in Texas with newer machines already do,” Callanen said. “More and more people want to vote when and where they choose, and we want to make it easy for them and not just do things the way they have always been done.”

Undercount and Overcount

A number of readers have asked the Rivard Report to explain the undercount and overcount votes tallied on Bexar County’s Unofficial Elections Results page. We asked Callanen to do the explaining.

“The undercount is basically a ‘none of the above’ vote,” she said. “A lot of the senior citizens vote in every single election and refuse to miss a single election, but when they get to the booth they decide they don’t want to vote for anyone. We see totally blank ballots, but the voter gets credit for voting. We refer to those as ‘editorial comments.’”

It’s odd, but 959 people who went to the polls Saturday to vote in the City of San Antonio elections did not cast a vote for mayor. Either they were confused by the two pages of 14 names or they simply decided they did not like any of them.

“Overcounts only occur in paper mail-in ballots where someone marks his or her vote for two candidates instead of one and neither candidate gets  a vote,” Callanen said. “You can’t overvote on a machine.”

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.