Catherine Benavidez

As early voting continues and primary elections are underway, judicial candidates receive relatively little attention compared to other candidates, such as those running for governor, according to a judicial clerk.

In the 2012 general election, about 58.6 percent of registered Texas voters voted for a presidential candidate, but 44 percent voted in the judicial race for the Court of Criminal Appeals. In 2010, 16.1 percent of people aged 18 to 29 reported voting, compared to 42.7 percent of those 30 and older, according to the Texas Civic Health Index, a report released by the University’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.

According to Sherry Williamson, 11th Court of Appeals clerk, voters are not typically familiar with judicial candidates’ qualifications or the way the judicial system works.

“People know more about district courts because of [television shows like] ‘CSI’ and all of that, but they don’t really understand the appeals courts,” Williamson said.

According to government senior Catherine Benavidez, the biggest barrier to students voting is the voter registration process, which she said is complicated.

“Many people are confused about the process, what information they need and when they need to do it by,” Benavidez said. “This confusion has only been enhanced by the new voter ID requirements that have been implemented in Texas this past year.”

Williamson said if the candidate is an incumbent, voters should consider the judge’s past decisions.

“Look at the positions they took and how they held,” Williamson said. “If they’re just now running, then you’ll just have to look at their experience, what cases they’ve been an attorney for, [and] what the outcome was.”

Williamson said personal connections are important for voters who are not familiar with the judicial system or legal language.

“I would suggest going to, say, an attorney friend or an elected official who is a friend and say, ‘Tell me what you know about these people,’ and get them to tell [you] in simple terms,” Williamson said. “Then, if you want to do further research, look at some of the decisions they’ve made as a judge and as an attorney.”

English sophomore Kellie Teague said she’s not planning to vote in the primary elections or in the regular elections in November.

“I feel like I don’t have — that one person doesn’t have — an impact,” Teague said. “If everybody literally votes, then yes, the elections would be entirely different — yes, but we can’t get everybody to do that.”

Benavidez said she believes students should vote to have someone who best represents their beliefs.

“The politicians that we are picking right now will be with us during very critical points in our lives,” Benavidez said. “Wouldn’t you want a say in who’s going to be governor or railroad commissioner when you have to start paying taxes?”

Students could make up the majority of a city council district based on a preliminary map released by the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The new district lines are being drawn as part of Austin’s new 10-1 plan, which will divide the city into 10 districts with one city council member from each. Currently, six city council members are voted on at-large and not drawn from specific geographic regions.

The preliminary map, released Saturday, outlines a district with a high student population, which some students say will allow for greater representation of students’ interests.

Catherine Benavidez, government senior and president of UT Votes, said the creation of a student district is an important step in getting students more involved with the community.

“I am 110 percent supportive of a student district,” Benavidez said. “It’s important to have a student district because students living in the area and going to [the] University know what issues impact us most and what ordinances would be best for our community. It would also make students interact more with the Austin community outside the University, instead of being so isolated.”

Benavidez said a student district could also help to increase student participation in voting, as long as students are aware of the existence and potential of the district. 

“Typically, the reason why people in our age group don’t vote as much as older generations is because they have a large sense of apathy and feel that their vote won’t make a difference,” Benavidez said. “[A student district] would radically change that. However, it is important to note that awareness about the district needs to be increased because if no one knows that our own student district exists, no one will know how to best utilize it.”

Ryan Rafols, a psychology sophomore and member of the commission, said he was elected to serve on the commission as a representative of students in Austin.

“Part of my goal in this whole process was to get a student district,” Rafols said. “While I couldn’t work directly with the student district coalition, I was able to help rally them together, speak to them and give them the resources they needed to make a district.”

Rafols said now that the preliminary map has been released, he expects more neighborhoods to get involved at meetings, but he does not see any major changes taking place with the lines for the student district.

“We may lose some people to other districts,” Rafols said. “We’re within the margin of 5 percent [of the goal], but we’re a little bit over so we could possibly lose a few neighborhoods.”

Craig Tounget, the commission’s executive director, said while he has heard a significant amount of support for the student-centric district, he has also heard concerns that the planned district will minimize the voices of the surrounding community.

“There were people who lived in the communities adjoining the student area that didn’t want students to be considered a protected class,” Tounget said. “They wanted the neighborhoods to have precedence over student populations. While [the district] does have a concentrated student population, it’s also a heavy district of neighborhoods, so it’s not like it was just a UT-drawn district.”

Joshua Tang, history senior and administrative director for Student Government, said he attended two commission meetings in support of the student-centric district because he feels the district will allow for representation that more accurately reflects Austin’s population.

“Students should be more involved in local Austin politics, and students have a special set of needs when it comes to local politics — both of those concerns could be addressed by creating a student district,” Tang said. “We’re not looking for special treatment. The referendum that Austin has was done so all of Austin citizens could have representation on city council. That’s the only thing students are asking for: that we have the same amount of representation as the rest of Austin.”

Tounget said the commission hopes to have a finalized version of the map ready by the first week of December.

“There are going to be four more public hearings so people can tell us what they like and don’t like about [the map],” Tounget said. “Then the commission will make the adjustments they think are necessary.”