In recent years, only two cities – San Diego and Minneapolis – have gone through the process Austin is initiating: drawing geographic city council districts that reflect the city's diversity.
Now Austin is giving it a try, beginning the process of assembling an independent citizens redistricting commission. The search is on for a diverse group of Austinites that will make up the commission.
The city hopes hundreds of people will apply to serve. But, the facts make that hope seem more like an ideal, because there are hurdles.
Attorney Steve Bickerstaff helped write the languge in Prop 3, the proposition voters approved in November that cleared the way for single-member districts. “Proposition 3 draws the line at five years, registered voter in Austin.”
Bickerstaff also wrote the next requirement, which is that applicants must have voted in three of those last five local elections. Given Austin’s historic low turnout for local elections, city demographer Ryan Robinson says the requirements may have the unintended consequence of making the pool of potential commissioners too small.
“But beyond that,” Robinson says, “in rough terms, 70 percent of the vote for council has been coming from neighborhoods that really only make up 30 to 35 percent of the city’s population.”
Robinson also points out that those percentages come from areas of the city that are not particularly diverse, mainly Central and West Austin – the very neighborhoods Prop 3 supporters argue have dominated local politics for too long.
Mark Littlefield, a political consultant in Austin, estimates the voting requirement alone boils the pool down to about 29,000 Austinites.
“I pulled the '3 out of 5' list from the Travis County voter file [and] from the Williamson County voter file and then I removed – to the best of my abilities – city employees.” That's because city employees cannot serve either, nor can their spouses. Another banned group is lobbyists and major campaign contributors. After all those people are taken from the list, Littlefield estimates “we’ll probably get down to around 27 or 28 thousand, maybe.”
Kenneth Mory is the City of Austin’s auditor. He says his job is to ensure the process goes smoothly using the rules voters approved last November. So to come up with a diverse group of people, Mory is planning an aggressive campaign on a variety of platforms.
“We’ve put advertisements on the metro bus,” Mory says, “quite a few newspaper advertisements in both English and Spanish language. And we are also looking at some of the other communities out there – such as the Chinese, the Vietnamese. And we are trying to engage a private firm that is going to get it out to other venues that are out there.”
From the hundreds of people Mory hopes apply, eventually will emerge a 14-member commission that will be diverse in age, gender, social status and race. That should be decided by May.