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Study Finds 'Cautious Optimism,' Increased Voter Turnout in 10-1 System's First Year

Council_ColeLeffingwellAdler.jpg
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
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Outgoing Council Member Sheryl Cole and former Mayor Lee Leffingwell are given awards by Mayor Steve Adler on January 6, 2015 at the swearing-in ceremony for the 10-1 council.

The Austin City Council has completed almost one year in its new configuration as a 10-1 system – with ten Council members representing ten different districts alongside one mayor.

Now, a new study out of UT Austin is trying to find whether the 10-1 system had an affect on voter turnout and civic engagement.

The short answer? It did — and, in some instances, it didn’t. The 2014 election brought out the highest percentage of Austin voters since 1975, with roughly 40 percent of residents turning up at the ballots. The new system also inspired 70 candidates to run. Eight out of 11 citywide races went to runoff elections. But then, without the additional draw of a governor's race, only 11 percent of voters returned to cast a runoff ballot.

“I think it’s voter fatigue,” says Susan Nold, Director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life. “I think so much attention gets put on the November election, both on dollars spent and advertising, and campaigns, there’s less time for people to note that the runoff election is coming up.”

The Strauss Institute, which published the study, collected data from interviews with 172 community leaders living in each of the city’s 10 districts. While many were optimistic about the potential for 10-1 to better represent Austin, some worried about this idea of “ward politics.”

“Ward politics is essentially the idea that you would have a single member representative just acting in the interest of that district, and potentially having the interest of that district be in conflict with the city as a whole,” Nold says.

Arguably, one example of this has been the perennial discussion of short-term rental regulations at Council. These discussions came out of District 10 Council member Sheri Gallo’s office, and some members have said the subject is of little concern to their districts' constituents.

Additionally, the study suggested rescheduling runoff elections, reducing the number of candidate forums and expanding outreach to increase voter turnout. 

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