Brace yourself: Travis County has one of its longest ballots in years

The biggest challenge facing Austin Community College’s $386 million set of proposals might also be the simplest: making sure voters find it on the ballot.

“Scroll Down For ACC!” is the message supporters of the ACC propositions are sending out in campaign literature, in an effort to keep the proposals from getting lost amid the longest ballot Travis County voters have seen in recent history.

A similar challenge faces Austin’s mayoral candidates, City Council hopefuls and even those for and against the city’s $1 billion rail-and-roads proposal. Those local contests have traditionally been decided in the spring, but this year they are on the Nov. 4 ballot, after a slew of national and state races.

Early voting will begin Monday. If history is any guide, many voters will select the all-Democratic or all-Republican “straight party” choice and miss the local boxes, which come without a party affiliation. Nearly every local campaign is imploring potential voters to remember that a straight party vote covers only part of the ballot. The typical Austin voter will see 12 screens’ worth of choices, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said.

“This is the longest ballot I’ve ever had,” DeBeauvoir said. “We are concerned that voters will get tired in the middle.”

There will also be more voters than is typical for a gubernatorial election. Nearly 50,000 new Travis County voters have registered since this spring, about 20,000 more than usually register in the run-up to a gubernatorial election. Much of that is probably due to interest in one of the nation’s highest-profile governor’s races, and it’s unclear how much an unusually large electorate will know about local issues.

Ballots in Williamson and Hays counties are about the typical length for a gubernatorial election. But in Austin, the ballot length, some quirks and a variety of voter tendencies are making politicos sweat.

First, roughly half of Travis voters click straight party. It saves time, minimizes the potential for accidentally clicking the wrong box and spares voters who have faith in a party’s selection process from learning the particulars of the many partisan races. DeBeauvoir said the straight party option could help voters who feel overwhelmed by this year’s ballot.

But straight party voting also contributes to voters missing nonpartisan portions of the ballot. During presidential elections, which draw the highest voter turnout but also the most casual set of them, about 25 percent of the Austin electorate fails to get past the partisan races, according to county records. In gubernatorial elections, the “undervote” typically drops to about 8 percent.

Sometimes, DeBeauvoir said, this phenomenon is fine. She said it is better for voters to skip races they know little about than stay away from the polls entirely.

“A good voter,” she said, “does not have to be a perfect voter.”

Still, the dropoff in this year’s local races could be significant, and in ways that are difficult to predict. Austin used to have its municipal elections in May, when a tiny turnout — about 10 percent of registered voters — tended to be made up of politically motivated people who kept an eye on the low-profile local races. A gubernatorial contest, by contrast, tends to draw upwards of 40 percent of the electorate — suggesting a lot of people who vote for governor don’t usually pay attention to the mayor and City Council.

That matters because this year, Austin’s City Council races are in the fall. A lot of people who historically have shown the willingness to choose gubernatorial candidates have not shown interest in local races.

The new system might change the situation. Historically, council candidates have run citywide, and their campaigns tended to focus on a relatively small and politically savvy swath while effectively ignoring much of Austin. This year, candidates are running in individual districts, which means they will be focusing their efforts on many of those historically overlooked neighborhoods. Perhaps that attention will get otherwise uninterested voters to focus on local issues.

But between the governor’s race, the energies devoted to the district races, the most expensive mayoral race in history and the much-debated rail-and-roads proposition, the ACC proposals could easily get lost in the civic jumble.

The college has three separate propositions. One calls for spending $224.8 million to renovate Highland Mall from a failed shopping center to an education/training facility hosting a “career expressway” where classrooms, labs and support services are clustered. Another proposition calls for spending $161.2 million renovate and expand the system’s campuses across the region. A third would give the college’s Board of Trustees permission to raise the property tax rate, which board members say would allow the college to keep tuition lower. By 2019, the three proposals would mean as much as $98 in additional taxes on a $200,000 home.

“This touches every corner of Central Texas. And it touches every corner of Central Texas during a time of great economic opportunity, and it touches almost every corner of Central Texas at a time of economic challenge,” said Steve Jackobs, the executive director of Capital IDEA, a job training program that partners closely with ACC.

DeBeauvoir suggested voters bring notes to keep all the races and propositions straight. She added that someone who is prepared for a long ballot will probably take 10 to 12 minutes to get through it.

The rail-and-roads proposal might draw enough heat to keep voters past the partisan races. But two years ago, a group called Austinites for Geographic Representation had a lot of passion as it stumped for a proposal to change the election system to what it is today. Political consultant Peck Young, one of the leaders of Austinites for Geographic Representation, said its volunteers stood outside polling locations reminding voters to scroll down past the partisan races.

Still, almost half the straight ticket voters did not get that far. That meant roughly 1 out of every 5 voters that day did not weigh in on the new election system, he said.

“It isn’t malicious ignorance,” Young said. “It’s routine — OU (vs. Texas) is October, Thanksgiving is November, Christmas is December, and for a lot of the serious voters, the city election is May.” Likewise, many casual voters tend to see November as about Democrats and Republicans.

Young said the tendency to vote straight ticket is likewise not a matter of education level or social savvy. He cites a precinct he noticed years ago, when he was running statewide campaigns, near the NASA headquarters in Houston. There, 90 percent of voters clicked straight ticket. A great many immediately left the booth. Polling suggested the habit came from a combination of party loyalty and just plain busy lives, Young said.

“To get them to scroll down (past partisan elections), you would need to stand outside the polling place yelling,” he said. “And these were a bunch of rocket scientists.”

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