If at first you don’t succeed…

This week in North Philly Notes, Ann O’M. Bowman, author of Reinventing the Austin City Councilwrites about the persistence of Austinites to change an electoral system.

You know how sometimes you try to change something and it doesn’t succeed. And then later, you try again maybe once or twice more. At that point, you might be tempted to throw in the towel, taking some solace in the fact that at least you tried more than once. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be, you tell yourself. Well, in the case of the efforts to change the way city council members were elected in Austin, Texas, it was the seventh attempt before the efforts were successful. Six previous times, ballot propositions that would have replaced the old electoral system with a new one were defeated by voters. Then came lucky number seven.

But it wasn’t luck that changed the outcome. Instead it was perseverance and commitment. And a plan. And sure, maybe a little bit of luck.

Reinventing the Austin City Council_smReinventing the Austin City Council tells the story of how Austin replaced its election system and what the change has brought about. At its heart is the issue of representation. In at-large elections, which Austin used for more than a century, candidates competed citywide and voters could vote for as many candidates as there were seats. A large number of local governments continue to elect their governing boards in at-large elections. In district elections, which Austin approved in 2012 and implemented in 2014, candidates compete in geographically-defined districts and voters who live in that district cast a ballot only for a candidate running for that district seat. This creates a more direct representational connection between the city council member and the constituent. Because of this, district elections are increasing in popularity in localities across the United States. Why does this matter?  Because the electoral system affects who gets elected to the city council. And who gets elected affects the policies that the city council adopts.

In Austin, a grassroots organization, Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), was the engine that propelled the district election issue to victory in 2012. AGR was an amalgam of individuals and groups, some of which had been on opposite sides of political issues in the past. But they shared a belief that a district system could be beneficial to their interests in rapidly growing Austin. AGR worked tirelessly to develop a bottom-up campaign, keeping the district question in front of local residents. Organizers hammered away at the issue of fairness, showing that for many years under the at-large system, most council members came from the same part of the city. Many parts of Austin, especially those in which African Americans and Latinx lived, had never elected a city council member from their area. AGR made the argument that this was unfair, and that the concerns of residents of those areas were often unheard and seldom prioritized by the council. Some opposition to AGR’s district proposition emerged, but it was unsuccessful in defeating the ballot question. On November 6, 2012, after rejecting a district electoral system on six previous occasions, 60.2% of Austin voters approved the district plan supported by AGR. In 2014, for the first time since the early 20th century, the city held district elections for the council.

The proverb, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” seems especially apt.

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