When the city of Austin announced the first members of a commission that will draw inaugural City Council districts, Republican political consultant Derek Ryan offered quick analysis.
Eight names were drawn May 22, and within a couple of hours Ryan, a voter data specialist and former research director for the state Republican Party, tweeted, “Seven are D primary voters, only one has voted in an R primary.”
Some might think that 88 percent Democratic sounds about right for Austin, the “blueberry in the tomato soup” of Texas politics. In fact, 70 percent of Austin primary voters cast ballots exclusively in Democratic primaries from 2006 through 2012, with 22 percent participating exclusively in Republican primaries, according to numbers that Democratic pollster Jeff Smith of Austin ran for us.
Voting in a primary election doesn’t necessarily prove someone’s political affiliation, though in Texas it’s the closest signal available from voting records. Texans do not register to vote by party affiliation; anyone can vote in either primary, even switching from election year to election year.
Council races in Austin are nonpartisan, and while city ordinance says the disrict-drawing commission should have “diversity by race, ethnicity, gender and geography,” it doesn’t specify any restrictions on members’ politics. But we looked into whether Ryan got the commission members’ votes right.
In November 2012, Austinites voted to switch the council from seven citywide members to 10 district representatives and a mayor, starting with the November 2014 election. Some 550 people applied to be on the 14-member commission that will draw the new district maps by Dec. 1. A panel narrowed the pool to 60 finalists, then city staffers drew names at random, according to the city’s website. The new members will choose six more from the pool of finalists to round out the group.
Ryan told us by email, “When the eight were announced, I did a quick check on those individuals,” looking at records from the 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012 primaries. Afterward, he said, he got curious about the other eligible applicants and calculated that 55 percent voted in the 2012 Democratic primary and 24 percent voted in the Republican primary.
He started his research, Ryan said, with information from the commission applications the city posted online. Then he matched each applicant’s information to his own voter database, which he said he compiled from information kept by county clerks’ offices and the Texas secretary of state, the state’s chief elections officer.
The applicants whose names were drawn for the commission were Magdalena Blanco, Mariano Díaz-Miranda, Rachel Farris, Phil Hewitt, Carmen Llanes Pulido, Art Lopez, Anna Saenz and Maria Solis.
At our request, Travis County tax office spokeswoman Tiffany Seward looked up each new commission member’s 2006-12 primary voting record and emailed us the results.
Blanco voted in the Democratic primaries in 2006 and 2008 and then the Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012. Those were the only Republican primary votes recorded among the group.
Two (Hewitt and Lopez) voted in Democratic primaries all four elections. Four (Díaz-Miranda, Farris, Llanes Pulido and Solis) voted in Democratic primaries in 2008, 2010 and 2012 but had no primary votes shown in Travis County for 2006. Saenz voted in the county’s 2008 Democratic primary but had no vote recorded in Travis for the other three years.
We sought to speak with all eight for their views and reached everyone but Saenz. Four declined to comment, and three commissioners who voted in the latest three Democratic primaries said that voting records did not tell the whole story and party politics won’t bear on the commission’s job.
“The job we’re doing is to try to bring more people to feel represented,” said Díaz-Miranda. He considers himself independent, he told us. “I’ve also voted Republican here,” he said; as an example, he said, he voted for Terry Keel for Travis County sheriff in the 1990s.
Our ruling: Ryan said the first choices to draw Austin’s council districts are seven Democratic primary voters and one GOP primary voter. We rate his statement as True.
Statement: Says first eight chosen to draw Austin City Council districts are seven Democratic primary voters and one Republican primary voter.