While Austin voters will face 18 city propositions this election, two dueling propositions are getting the most attention: Prop 3 and Prop 4. Both propositions would fundamentally alter Austin’s form of city council representation and elections. Here’s a closer look at Prop 3 and Prop 4, which would bring different forms of geographic representation to the Austin City Council.
What is Prop 3?
Here’s the yes/no question voters will be asked to decide upon:
Shall the city charter be amended to provide for the election of council members from 10 geographical single-member districts, with the mayor to be elected from the city at large, and to provide for an independent citizens redistricting commission?
Currently, all seven members of the Austin City Council (including the mayor) are elected at-large, meaning they represent the entire city and not just specific geographic parts of it. Prop 3 would change this by dividing the city into 10 separate geographic districts, which council members would represent. (Only the mayor would continue to run citywide.) A citizens commission would be tasked with drawing the district lines and have the final say on those boundaries. Prop 3 was put on the ballot by a citizen petition drive.
What is Prop 4?
Prop 4 is another yes/no question being put to the voters:
Shall the city charter be amended to provide for the election of council members from eight geographical single-member districts, with the mayor and two additional council members to be elected from the city at large?
Like Prop 3, Prop 4 would increase the size of the city council to 11. But it would draw eight individual districts for council members to run in and represent, and create two at-large seats on the city council, along with the mayor. The districts would be determined by the city via a yet-to-be-determined process. Prop 4 was put on the ballot by a vote of the current council.
Why do supporters say we need Prop 3?
Prop 3 supporters Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR) got the ball rolling when they began gathering the signatures required to put Prop 3 on the ballot. AGR touts several advantages of the 10-1 plan:
- Better minority representation: By creating 10 districts, 10-1 supporters, including the Austin branch of the NAACP, say the chances are better to draw an African-American opportunity district, i.e., one where minority citizens could elect the candidate of their choice. This would also end the "gentlemen's agreement" on council that informally reserves a seat for an African-American and Hispanic council member.
- More grassroots opportunities: By moving to an all single-member district format, supporters say elections should be cheaper to run since a candidate won’t need to campaign citywide – creating an opportunity for more grassroots candidacies.
- Bringing under-represented voices to City Hall: One theme of AGR’s campaign is that a handful of Central Austin zip codes have been disproportionately represented on the council. “For the last 41 years, since 1971 … we’ve had 55% of the elected officials in this city … elected from an area , four zip codes, representing 10 percent of the population,” AGR political consultant Peck Young told the council this summer.
What do Prop 4’s backers say in support?
A loose but growing coalition of groups are uniting in support of Prop 4. Here’s some of their reasoning:
- Protection for dispersed groups: Prop 4 backers argue the addition of two at-large seats mean ethnicities and identity groups that are more geographically diffuse than Austin’s African-American population – including Asian-Americans and gay and lesbian Austinites – still have a good chance of representation. (Members of both the above groups have previously been elected at-large) .
- Giving voters more choices: Supporters, like Austin Community for Change backer and political consultant David Butts, argue that the 8-2-1 system allows Austin voters the chance to vote in races for four seats – the mayor, two at-large council members, and a district council member – instead of only two races under the 10-1 plan (the mayor, and a district council member).
- A guard against “ward politics:” 8-2-1 proponents point to the “hybrid” nature of the proposal – a mix of single-member districts and at-large representation – as a safeguard against the scenario a districts-only council routinely voting on what’s best for their district, instead of the entire city.
What are the drawbacks of either plan?
Prop 3 opponents point to the process by which the citizens commission draws its 10 districts, arguing that the strict limits on who can serve and the powers of the commission aren’t widely known or understood. The Austin-American Statesman cited local pollster Mark Littlefield stating that one requirement for potential commissioners – voting in three of the last five city elections – would disqualify “all but six percent, or 28,000, of the roughly 461,000 Austinites who are registered to vote.” And that doesn’t include other restrictions on commission candidates (and their spouses) such as employment with the City of Austin, contributing or bundling over $1,000 in local races, and more. (Here's the language Prop 3 would insert in the city charter.)
Some council members have also expressed concern with the policy-making powers vested in the citizen commission: it has “sole legal standing to defend any action regarding a certified final map, and shall inform the city council of the City of Austin if it determines that funds or other resources provided for the operation of the commission are not adequate.”
Prop 4 opponents insist that Prop 4’s 8-2-1 plan won’t pass muster with the Department of Justice, as the eight district scheme dilutes the voting power of African- Americans. (Texas and other southern states are subject to DOJ pre-clearance of their changes to elections.) At a recent press conference, representatives of local NAACP and LULAC chapters said that if Prop 4 passes, they would challenge DOJ approval of the 8-2-1 plan.
Prop 4 opponents also argue that larger districts and two at-large council members will allow the existing Central Austin power structure to maintain their grasp of City Hall, and that the process by which districts are drawn may be subject to politics and gerrymandering.
Can citizens vote on both props?
Yes. Props 3 and 4 are separate ballot items. Voters can vote yes on both, no on both, yes on one and no on another, or cast no vote at all. In order for either prop to pass, it must get a simple plurality: 50 percent plus one vote.
What happens if both props win?
Basically an instant runoff: The prop with the most votes wins.
Who’s endorsing the props?
Early voting is underway, and runs through Nov. 2. Election Day is Nov. 6.