While most voters were focused on the presidential election last Tuesday, two landmark propositions passed here in Austin that will forever change elections in the city. The first was Proposition 2, which moved municipal elections from May to November. The second was Proposition 3, which will end at-large representation on the Austin City Council and replace it with 10 geographic districts, allowing citizens to elect city leaders who represent their neighborhoods and interests. Together, these propositions may be just the shot needed to engage more students in all levels of government.
Here are the facts: Despite predictions that fewer young people would vote in this election, the youth vote remained steady at 50 percent for the 2012 national election. In battleground states, the youth vote was as high as 58 percent and was decisive to the outcome in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
In contrast, youth voter turnout in Texas remained one of the lowest in the nation, at only 39 percent. But even that number looks rosy when compared to shockingly low voter turnout in Austin city elections. Only 10 percent of voters elected our mayor and City Council last May, with a tiny fraction of citizens aged 18-29 participating. That means fewer than 50,000 voters chose our leaders in a city with over 800,000 residents — and we’re the fastest growing city in the country.
There are many reasons why voter turnout in Austin is low, both in national and local elections. Many potential voters — including many UT students — feel their vote doesn’t count, that elected officials don’t represent their interests and that money dilutes their voice in politics, among other concerns. We need to address all of these issues. Though Propositions 2 and 3 are certainly no silver bullet, students have always been much more likely to vote in November than in May, and now they’ll have the opportunity to elect local officials that represent their interests.
The new City Council districts will give areas with large student populations a greater voice on the council. An independent commission will be established to draw the districts, requiring representation from a large, qualified and diverse pool of applicants — including one position that will be reserved for a student. Depending on how the districts are drawn, the new plan may make it easier for a student to run for City Council. UT Student Government rightly endorsed the 10-1 plan, and many students were involved as organizers to get it passed.
It’s particularly critical for more Latino, black and Asian students to get active. Racial segregation is still prevalent in Austin, the legacy of a 1928 city plan that forced African-American and Hispanic residents to move east. Mirroring the persistent pattern in the general population, the majority of Asian and white undergraduates living off campus resides in West Campus, while most Hispanic and black undergraduates live in East Riverside. According to a Daily Texan analysis of the 2010 census, 47 percent of college-age Hispanics lived in the Riverside area, and 9 percent of black students. With lingering racial tensions around campus, we need representatives in local government who will listen and help develop solutions.
At the national level, Latinos flexed their voting power on Tuesday, with over 70 percent casting their ballots for President Obama. As the country grows increasingly diverse, it’s critical that voters everywhere reflect that diversity. In Austin, Latinos, blacks, Asians and other non-white students can have a decisive impact on whether our city celebrates or overlooks our diversity. The potential is obvious. As UT student and Planned Parenthood organizer Katy Waters proclaimed at a recent community forum, “Millennials are the largest voting bloc in America and the most ethnically diverse and politically progressive in our nation’s history!”
Why should local issues matter to UT students, many of whom have no plans to stay in Austin after graduation? Because you live here now, and a great number of decisions that affect your quality of life are made locally. The number and route of buses that get you to school or work and how much it costs to park if you drive. The quality of your children’s schools. The availability of medical care. The number of jobs available to help you pay your student loans. And if those issues don’t speak to you, just consider your reaction if City Council were to require local bars and music clubs to close at midnight.
Exercising your power as a citizen while you’re a student can become a lifelong practice. A vibrant, representative democracy — in Austin and nationally — depends on it.
Beeson is a senior fellow and lecturer at the Annette Strauss Center for Civic Life in UT’s College of Communications, where she is spearheading a year-long news and public dialogue series with KUT and KLRU, “Why Bother? Engaging Texans in Democracy Today.”