The Austin Voting Gap: Dove Springs
The Austin Voting Gap was reported by KUT’s Mose Buchele in conjunction with Suzannah Gonzales of the Austin American Statesman.
Twenty mph wind doesn’t deter Ofelia Zapata as she makes her way door-to-door around Dove Springs, her South East Neighborhood. In light of the upcoming city elections, Zapata is polling her neighbors about what they’d like to see change. She hopes to increase neighborhood voter turnout.
A new mayor and four city council members will be elected in May. The cities historically low election turnout means those important positions can be decided by a small percentage of the cities overall voters.
At the first door, 23-year-old Eva Ortiz answers.
“Now tell me if you are satisfied, very satisfied, somewhat satisfied or not satisfied with the following services,” Zapata paused, referring to a list of several city-provided services.“Garbage pickup?” After a slight hesitation, Ortiz answered, “satisfied.” “Police protections?” “Not satisfied.” “Street maintenance?” “Not satisfied.”
Ortiz continued with the laundry list of city services she wants to see improved. But when Zapata asked if Ortiz votes in the city elections, Ortiz said no. Ortiz plans to vote in the upcoming city elections. She’d be the first to do so of all 30 people in her extended family.
Among all the neighborhoods in Austin, Dove Springs ranks among the lowest voter turnout. Last city election fewer than 3 percent of registered voters turned out. That’s the reason Zapata is knocking on doors.
“You see the council on TV, you see the school board and they’re over there,” Zapata said. “They’re unreachable to us.”
Zapata said she thinks residents can use the power of the polls to change Dove Springs for the better. It’s a daunting task. The reasons people don’t participate seem as varied as the people she meets.
For Ortiz, it’s a matter of culture. Like many of her neighbors, her parents are immigrants.
“It’s like a chain reaction,” Ortiz said. “Immigrant families, they come here and their sole purpose is to make a better living for their family. You won’t just come and say ‘Oh, I’m going to vote’ unless you’ve been informed about it and have been taught or something.”
But others, like resident Shelley McGee, aren’t sure it would make any difference even if people did vote. Dove Spring is, after all, a low income area.
“I guess the poorer people, we don’t get heard” McGee said. “I know what the politicians promise is just a promise to get elected, and I feel like the lower income people really don’t have a voice when it comes to politics.”
Her sentiments are backed up by political reality.
“The highest turnout is centralized here in the west side of town, and the money even more so,” said Mark Littlefield, an Austin based political consultant.
He said a successful candidate knows where to go to find votes and political donations. That means spending time in places like the affluent West Side neighborhood Tarrytown.
“What you’re going to see is campaigns walking in Tarrytown and not in Dove Springs,” Littlefield said. “You’re going to see them making phone calls to Tarrytown and not into Dove Springs. You’re going to see them going to neighborhood association meetings in Tarrytown and not in Dove Springs.”
Poorer neighborhoods are left out in the cold.
“The more you vote, the more responsive the government is. The more responsive the government is, the more likely you are to say ‘my vote makes a difference,’” Andy Hernandez said.
Hernandez heads the group that conducting Zapata’s survey, the Wesley Center for Family and Community Development. He insists the people of Dove Springs aren’t apathetic, even though many don’t vote.
“We do know that at least 30 percent talk to their neighbors about community problems,” Hernandez said. “That’s huge. That’s 9,000 people. It’s not that people don’t care; it’s not that they’re not active. They are involved in their churches. They are involved in making their neighborhoods better. What we haven’t done is [sic] make the connection between those things they care about and the act of voting.”
Hernandez said he hopes the questionnaire will help in making that connection.
Littlefield thinks more sweeping reforms may be necessary. He offers one suggestion; the city should adopt single member districts. A councilmember that represents one district, Littlefield said, will seek the vote of every resident in that district and become more responsive.
“I’ll be able to knock on almost every door here,” Littlefield said. “I’ll be able to call almost every voter here. I’ll be able to talk about how they need a stop sign at William Cannon and Dove Springs.”
Many voters in Austin don’t vote simply because they lack the confidence in themselves and the system. The biggest hurdle is for residents to find their voice, Zapata said. When Zapata joined her local PTA, she found her opinion mattered.
“I could never give people eye contact,” Zapata said. “It didn’t take me one year to learn how to talk; it took me three years, a lot of crying, a lot of shaking and when I survey people I see that’s the way I used to be.”
Zapata said she is confident if she can bring her neighbors to the polls, she can make the city take notice, and make a difference in her community.
“Because one day our vote will count, especially if we get parents involved, the communities that aren’t voting,” Ortiz said. “Perhaps one day their vote will really matter.”