Over the past several months, Republican-controlled state legislatures have levied an onslaught of voter suppression efforts in response to 2020’s record-breaking turnout across the country. While Georgia has rightfully received the lion’s share of criticism from civil rights advocates, Texas lawmakers are in the process of pushing through similarly dangerous legislation. Despite these endeavors, progressives statewide are fighting for municipal ballot initiatives that would transform local voting systems — especially in Austin.
With early voting for the May 1 elections in full swing, voters in the capital city are considering a staggering eight propositions. The proposals, which pertain to everything from the timing of mayoral elections to democratizing campaign finance, could reshape Austin politics for years to come. Even more, they could propel major metropolises like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio to follow suit, says Jim Wick, the campaign manager for Austinites for Progressive Reform (APR).
“We’re in a new era of voter suppression and, as our state contemplates more restrictions on voting, cities are not powerless. We can pass reforms that will increase participation and turnout and get more people invested in our system of governance,” he says. “If we’re successful in Austin, other cities could implement these reforms. And maybe, over time, we could move the needle enough to impact statewide elections.”
Wick, whose organization is leading the charge for five different propositions, says now is the time for cities to prioritize electoral access across a variety of mediums. That means pinpointing long-existing structural aspects of local elections that often favor older, whiter, and wealthier voting blocs. Specifically, APR is working to establish a ranked-choice voting system (Prop E), move mayoral elections to align with presidential elections (Prop D), and fund a “democracy dollars” system that would allow Austinites to direct public money towards the campaigns of their choice (Prop H).
If approved, Wick says, these propositions have the potential to empower voters like never before. More so, they would eliminate low-turnout runoffs that disenfranchise communities of color and balance out a campaign finance system in which a mere one percent of Austinites—the majority of whom reside in just three of the city’s ten council districts — currently contribute to local campaigns.
But easily the most contentious idea that APR is pushing is Prop F, which would create what’s referred to as a “strong mayor” system. Like every major town in Texas (outside of Houston), Austin’s government operates under a council manager structure in which the city manager, not the mayor, possesses the most power when it comes to day-to-day operations. Because the city manager is an appointed official who isn’t elected, Wick says, they’re not directly accountable to voters — a format that was originally instituted in the early 1900s as a way to provide a buffer between local policy and the people. Insulating the most powerful person in city hall from the will of voters is an outdated and undemocratic idea, he argues.
While the notion is a bit obscure for the average voter, it has stirred plenty of controversy. Throughout the spring, Prop F has been critiqued by people on both ends of the political spectrum who worry that handing the mayor these responsibilities (along with veto power over city council proposals) risks enabling a power-hungry executive in the future. But Wick contends that a democratically elected mayor who is beholden to voters is far more likely to act quickly, decisively, and with accountability than a city manager who isn’t. Especially in times of crisis.
“There’s no guarantee that, if we had a democratically elected executive, the response to situations like the winter storm would have been better,” he says. “However, we do know that if they turned out in a way that voters didn’t like, the voters could hold that person accountable at the ballot box. That’s the key difference here.”
With early voting running through April 27 and election day set for May 1, it’s unclear if APR’s proposals will emerge victorious when the dust settles. As things stand, Austin’s city council, which often produces near-unanimous votes, is split on several key issues at stake, including Prop F. Perhaps more importantly, because the timing of this election is expected to draw just a fraction of local voters — circumstances that typically heavily favor an older, wealthier, and more conservative crowd — there’s a significant chance that several (if not all) of these initiatives could fail if progressives don’t turn out.
One thing’s for sure: With transformative ideas on hand that could significantly shift the power dynamics in the capital city and far beyond, the rest of Texas will be watching.