City Hall

Dallas, Instead of Fiddling with the Election Calendar, Could Change What We Have to Vote About

One way to get people to vote is to give them something worth voting about.
One way to get people to vote is to give them something worth voting about. 3dfoto Shutterstock
Mayor Mike Rawlings is proposing that we move our local elections from May to November in even-numbered years as a way to do something about our deplorably low voter participation. And we do need some tricks.

Short of hanging all the losing candidates, it’s hard to imagine anything that could create urgency or interest around local elections. In recent years Dallas consistently has been at or near the top of the list of major cities for most deplorable voter participation in local elections, and no one has been able to pinpoint a cause with any precision.

Rawlings is betting that our somewhat anomalous May elections, where only local seats are on the ballot, may ask too much of voters. Why go to all the trouble of voting, in other words, if you can’t even vote for or against that guy, what’s his name, who’s on TV all the time with the orange face?

Think of it in terms of a motto. “Dallas: Less Deplorable Than It Used To Be.” “Dallas: As Undeplorable As It Can Manage.” “Dallas: Getting Less Deplorable Every Day.”

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By Rawlings’ theory, moving local elections to November on even-numbered years would help in every second election, when people get to go vote about the guy on TV. Then in the mid-term national elections, presumably, without a presidential vote, no one would vote again. In fact some of our local mid-term non-presidential elections in recent years have produced even more deplorable turnouts than our May elections.

But we take his point. By switching to even-year November elections, we might be able to improve participation enough to get us more like a third of the way down from the top of the most-deplorable list, but somehow that seems like a pathetic ambition.

Think of it in terms of a motto. “Dallas: Less Deplorable Than It Used To Be.” “Dallas: As Undeplorable As It Can Manage.” “Dallas: Getting Less Deplorable Every Day.”

Just thinking out loud here — and in no way contradicting the mayor’s idea, only trying to add a little something extra — what if people had something to vote about? Like making a difference or a cool candidate. Candidates are one interesting area to explore. The other is what they can do, once elected (nothing, at present).

In his most recent May electoral victory, Rawlings was whisk-broomed into office with the support of 30,703 voters — roughly 2.3 percent of the populace. In a family of two adults and three children, a support level of 2.3 percent would be roughly equivalent to someone’s foot. Four years earlier, Rawlings took the field with 28,424 votes or 2.1 percent of the population.

His total votes combined from both elections come to 59,127. For comparison, when Laura Miller was elected mayor in an odd-hurried up special election in 2002 — in a substantially smaller city — she won 64,224 votes. That’s more than Rawlings got in two tries. The vote-getting champion in recent history is still Ron Kirk, who won the mayoral race with 68,967 votes in 1995.

I’m not sure that either Kirk’s victory or Miller’s would have gotten us off the deplorables list in those years, but they both may point to another approach to the problem. Both were smart, glamorous, exciting candidates who gave voters the notion that the voters’ votes might make a real difference.

So did they? Did Kirk or Miller change anything at City Hall? No. Not much. City Hall under both still managed to bumble on pretty much as it always had, handing out traffic lights and curb repairs to the council members to keep them dumb and happy, giving away the store, meanwhile, to the old Citizens Council oligarchy.

My own two-bit theory has always been that the city manager system here was designed to thwart any kind of meaningful involvement by the voters in the day-to-day at City Hall. And people get it.

Even if they don’t focus intently on the details, most people end up being fairly smart in deciding their own personal priorities and spending their energy. If their general impression is that City Hall is an implacable waste of time for them, then they don’t waste their time on it.

That’s what we have. That’s what’s deplorable. Dallas citizens tend to see City Hall as so impervious to their will, so hermetically sealed within itself and utterly unaware of and uninterested in their needs, let alone unresponsive, that it’s hardly ever worth their time to go knocking on its door.

Most of the regular citizens I see at City Hall are only down there because they think City Hall is trying to kill them or run them out of their homes somehow. Civic participation for them is a 911 call.

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Most of the regular citizens I see at City Hall are only down there because they think City Hall is trying to kill them or run them out of their homes somehow. Civic participation for them is a 911 call.

Two huge but simple changes could fix that. The first would be adoption of a strong-mayor system. I’m not saying we get rid of the city manager. But we change the charter so that the buck will have somewhere to stop at City Hall instead of just sailing around in circles for a while and then sailing out the door. The voters need to have one person they put at City Hall whom they can hold ultimately responsible.

Fair, not fair, almost doesn’t matter. The voters just need to have a hammer they can wield to make things happen. We need a celebrity apprentice’s apprentice system. The mayor tells the manager, “You’re fired!” The voters tell the mayor, “No, you’re fired!”

The other thing, maybe even bigger than the system, is the candidates. What would happen, for example, if we had young high-identification candidates who churned the voters who are staying home now? I’m thinking of younger voters of all ethnicities but Hispanic voters in particular, new-urbanist voters — all those stay-at-homes who probably have the energy to become very involved, if they only had a good reason.

Miller and Kirk did some of that. Miller in particular put together a voting coalition that perplexed all the old hacks in town because it wasn’t supposed to happen — middle class North Dallasites voting shoulder-to-shoulder with minorities and urbanistos.
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Ron Kirk is still the city's top vote-getter in recent history, and he ran in May both times.
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Ironic, because they had been at each other’s throats on the City Council, Miller and Kirk wound up ringing the same bell at the polls. They both appealed to a spirit of civic and reform-minded hope for change.

That spirit is absolutely out there, waiting to be called. Look around. The apathy and ennui that mar our local elections are totally out of character with everything else you see going on in Dallas — the construction cranes, the buzz, the pursuit of opportunity. How did a town with so much energy wind up with a City Hall that feels like a postal museum?

Well, I have my own answer, but as some of you may know, I’m paranoid. I don’t think it’s an accident. I believe the structure of local government and the management of elections by the old elite have both deliberately conspired to keep the CLOSED sign in the windows at City Hall.

So, sure, we could fiddle with the election dates. But what if we experimented first with fiddling with the form of government itself? Then we go out and find some candidates who can really pour the coal on the fire.

Oh, man. That is the Dallas Citizens Council’s cold-sweats, shouting-in-their-sleep, tooth-grinding, sheet-ripping nightmare! Don’t you love it?
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze