Runoff elections attract few voters. Austinites have said they want to avoid them.
Undecided. That’s how several local races in Austin ended up Tuesday night.
Unlike presidential or statewide elections, city races are often crowded, since candidates don't run with a certain party. None of the candidates in the races for mayor and three City Council seats received more than 50% of the total votes on Tuesday. Because no one clinched the majority, the top two candidates in each competition will head to a runoff election in December, as required by state law.
But last year, Austinites said they didn’t want this system of voting any longer.
“It’s a shame that voters [and] candidates will be put through this process one more time, despite having said loudly that they don't prefer it,” said Andrew Allison, a member of the political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform.
After collecting enough signatures, the group put several changes to local government on the ballot last year. Voters approved two of them, including moving mayoral elections to the same year as presidential ones. As a result, whoever wins the mayor’s race in December will serve a two-year term instead of the typical four years; voters will come back in 2024 to elect a mayor again.
Voters also approved ranked-choice voting in local elections. The proposition, known as Prop E, passed with nearly 59% of the votes.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to show a preference for candidates in a race, instead of choosing just one. Voters would be allowed to rank up to five candidates, and when the final votes come in, the lower-ranking candidates would be dropped until the city had a winner.
The City of Austin, though, has not implemented ranked-choice voting in local elections. This style of voting has been added to the city's charter, which says it would be used "provided it is not in conflict with the state constitution or the state laws." But the city maintains that state law does not allow for ranked-choice voting — a stance that several election experts KUT spoke with also share.
While state law does not outright prohibit ranked-choice voting, it says officials in large cities need to earn a majority of the total votes. The definition of "majority" is unclear, but the city points to an opinion issued in 2001 by then-Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar. Cuellar said that “majority" does not include anything other than a person's first-choice vote, so the city could not adopt ranked-choice voting.
Allison said even if using ranked-choice voting might attract rebuke from the state, the city should be responsive to voters.
“The city has not lifted a finger to implement it, against the will of the voters,” he said.
At least one state lawmaker filed a bill in the last legislative session that would allow cities to use ranked-choice voting, but the effort went nowhere.
One big plus, in the eyes of supporters, is that ranked-choice voting does away with the need for runoff elections. As all elections do, runoff elections cost the city money. The City of Austin estimates the runoff elections next month will cost $500,000.
Then there’s the fact that runoff elections attract few voters. When two Austin City Council races went to runoffs in 2020, fewer than 10% of registered voters showed up to the polls. And those who do show up tend to be more engaged voters, said Joshua Blank, research director at UT Austin’s Texas Politics Project.
“[They] are probably not terribly representative of the electorate of the whole,” he said. “This could mean they’re more educated or more wealthy.”