APRIL 30, 2021 — Editor’s note: This op-ed by Walter Clark Wilson, associate professor of political science at UTSA, originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News.
Too many Texans are voting.
That’s what Republican leaders appear to think after record turnout last November. To combat this threat to their political viability, the Republican-controlled Senate passed SB 7 to prohibit a host of actions local election officials took in 2020 to make voting safer and less burdensome.
Provisions include banning officials from extending early voting hours beyond 12 per day, offering drive-thru polling places and proactively distributing absentee ballot applications. The bill would also bar the most populous counties from offering countywide voting while allowing partisan poll watchers to film voters inside polling places.
Republicans know that in poorer communities, the provisions of SB 7 would make many people who are older, have health conditions, work inconvenient schedules or have reasonable expectations for privacy and security at the polls decide that voting is simply not worth it. They also know such individuals tend to be Black or Latino and vote for Democrats.
While legislative efforts to conjure an unrepresentative electorate by suppressing those most in need of representation are upsetting, in terms of suppressive impact, they fall far short of San Antonio’s practice of holding municipal elections in May of odd-numbered years. These low-turnout affairs sustain a political status quo that empowers special interests and leaves most San Antonians poorly represented. Municipal elections should be moved to coincide with federal elections in November.
The 2019 election for San Antonio mayor was the closest and most bitterly contested in recent memory. The fierce competition drove record turnout for a municipal race in the June runoff — 15.43 percent. Just 121,033 of the city’s registered voters participated in a race Mayor Ron Nirenberg won by 2,690 votes. Five and a half times as many San Antonio voters — 663,115 total — did not participate.
That such an important election received so little participation is appalling, but also understandable. Participation is highest when election information is most salient. In presidential election years, one cannot escape election coverage and people engage as a result. Turnout drops off substantially in lower profile midterm elections and bottoms out in elections not held in November of even-numbered years. The electorates for primaries and local elections are older, wealthier, whiter and far more partisan than the electorate in general elections.
The dismal participation in our municipal elections provides a poor basis for claiming a political mandate — and for securing effective government and representation. Instead, it creates an environment where the special interests of the wealthy can thrive — often at the expense of poorer neighbors — and where meaningful change to status quo policy is more difficult to secure. It is no surprise, then, that for all its charms, San Antonio languishes behind many other cities in terms of equity, infrastructure, amenities and opportunity.
On a host of issues that affect the lives of everyone in San Antonio, special interests get their way and leave residents holding the bag. Big-box stores avoid paying their fair share of property taxes. Revenue-generating properties receive massive tax breaks. Big developers bulldoze heritage oaks without consequence. San Antonians make up the difference in lost revenues with higher property and sales taxes, suffer through worsening urban heat and deal with neglected infrastructure. A city government empowered by — and accountable to — a larger share of the city’s voters would have more clout to push back in service of the public interest.
Decisions on ballot propositions — like those being considered this May — only increase the urgency to move municipal elections to November.
Ballot propositions can provide meaningful public empowerment, but in the context of low-turnout elections, they tend to serve the special interests of a few. In May 2015, for example, 53,745 San Antonians voted to force any future decisions about rail infrastructure before voters. That decision, made by a few, will severely limit the city’s ability to deal with transportation problems. This May, a small minority of San Antonians will decide whether to address problems with police accountability by withdrawing the police union’s right to bargain collectively. Surely, the public deserves a greater voice on decisions as important as these. When it comes to municipal elections, not enough San Antonians are voting.
Victory celebrations in San Antonio always include honking car horns, and we are carrying that tradition over to UTSA. If you are in San Antonio, join us for a nostalgic Commencement Drive around the Main Campus. This new tradition began in May 2020 and will begin at the Brackenridge (BK 5) parking lot adjacent to the Child Development Center. Vehicles can begin gathering at 5:00 p.m. The parade begins at 5:30 p.m.Brackenridge (BK 5) parking lot, Main Campus
In person ceremony for students recieving their doctorate degrees.H-E-B Student Union Ballroom, Main Campus
In person ceremoney for University College students.Retama Auditorium, Main Campus
This spring’s commencement ceremonies will be college-based and held at various locations on Main Campus. While the ceremonies will look different than in previous years, they retain many of the traditional celebratory aspects to rightfully honor UTSA’s graduating students. 10 a.m. (last names A-GO); 2 p.m. (last names GP-O); 6 p.m. (last names P-Z)Convocation Center, Main Campus
This spring’s commencement ceremonies will be college-based and held at various locations on Main Campus. While the ceremonies will look different than in previous years, they retain many of the traditional celebratory aspects to rightfully honor UTSA’s graduating students. 10 a.m. (last names A-GA); 2 p.m. (last names GB-O); 6 p.m. (last names P-Z)Recreation Wellness Center, Main Campus
This spring’s commencement ceremonies will be college-based and held at various locations on Main Campus. While the ceremonies will look different than in previous years, they retain many of the traditional celebratory aspects to rightfully honor UTSA’s graduating students. 10 a.m. (last names A-GA); 2 p.m. (last names GB-M); 6 p.m. (last names N-Z)H-E-B Student Union Ballroom, Main Campus
This spring’s commencement ceremonies will be college-based and held at various locations on Main Campus. While the ceremonies will look different than in previous years, they retain many of the traditional celebratory aspects to rightfully honor UTSA’s graduating students. 2 p.m. (last names A-L); 6 p.m. (last names M-Z)Retama Auditorium, Main Campus
The University of Texas at San Antonio is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge through research and discovery, teaching and learning, community engagement and public service. As an institution of access and excellence, UTSA embraces multicultural traditions and serves as a center for intellectual and creative resources as well as a catalyst for socioeconomic development and the commercialization of intellectual property - for Texas, the nation and the world.
To be a premier public research university, providing access to educational excellence and preparing citizen leaders for the global environment.
We encourage an environment of dialogue and discovery, where integrity, excellence, inclusiveness, respect, collaboration and innovation are fostered.
UTSA is a proud Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) as designated by the U.S. Department of Education.
The University of Texas at San Antonio, a Hispanic Serving Institution situated in a global city that has been a crossroads of peoples and cultures for centuries, values diversity and inclusion in all aspects of university life. As an institution expressly founded to advance the education of Mexican Americans and other underserved communities, our university is committed to ending generations of discrimination and inequity. UTSA, a premier public research university, fosters academic excellence through a community of dialogue, discovery and innovation that embraces the uniqueness of each voice.