Lines Matter: How Geographic Representation Could Completely Redefine Austin


Caption: This data was taken from a power point prepared by the City Demographer. (A link to the whole file is at the end of the article.) Blue areas are wealthier, redder areas are poorer. It's pretty obvious how rich and poor are divided in Austin.

Nothing’s really changed in Austin’s government since the early 70s except for voter turnout has been swirling down the toilet. In 1971, more than half the city voted in the local election. These days we’re lucky if we get more than 10% of the city. Even crazier, in raw numbers, more people voted in ’71 than they did in 2009 even though Austin’s population is more than three times as big.

The only remotely definitive answer I’ve heard to the “why don’t people vote” question is, “nobody gives a shit.” Some of the theories floating around the Austin Cut East Riverside headquarters include people being too busy working at their dead-end jobs to register and later drive out to H-E-B in actual daylight to vote, people realizing that local politics is a rich man’s game and don’t feel compelled to participate, and the theory that young people (Austin’s biggest age group) think voting is too annoying because there’s no way to vote from our cell phones yet.

Earlier this year I wrote an article about mixed-use development and rising costs. It came out right before this past local election and it got me a lot of e-mail responses. Some people wanted to know who they should vote for. The only problem was that all of them asked me this way after the election. All of the incumbents had already been reelected.

Either way you look at it, it’s obvious that most people here don’t know anything about the local government and couldn’t really care less. But it’s this attitude that lets things get to the point we’re at now: we’ve got the highest rent out of the major Texas cities, our utilities are all on their way up, the roads are about to enter an ice age of gridlock, public transit is a joke, education isn’t a priority, and to top it all off, we’re poorer than the average Texan.

These problems need some serious work, but without the right leadership and some serious re-prioritization down at city hall, nothing’s going to change. Lucky for us, on this November’s presidential ballot, there are going to be some options for us to choose a new system of electing our local government. The two redistricting plans are Proposition 3, a.k.a. the Citizens Districting 10-1 plan (CD10-1), and Proposition 4’s 8-2-1 plan.

How We Do Things ‘Round Here, Boy

We’ve had the same system of local representation for 41 years. In 1971, the council was made up of six members plus a mayor. This was the first year that citizens voted for their mayor. Before that, city council chose. 1971 was also the beginning of the “gentleman’s agreement,” an unwritten rule where White Austin agreed to reserve one of the six council seats for a Black representative. A few years later, a second seat was reserved for a Latino candidate and little has changed since.

Our current system can be represented as 0-6-1: nobody is elected from geographic districts, six people are elected city-wide, and one mayor is elected city-wide. So while a council member in 1971 was supposed to listen to 250,000 people’s wishes, today’s council member is supposed to represent around 800,000 people from across the entire city. And even though Whites are still the city-wide majority in Austin, the Hispanic population now makes up over 30% of the city. The Asian-American community is growing too. They’re at about 6% of the total population. These populations are going to get bigger in the future.

Despite all of this, Latinos only get reserved one council seat (16% representation) and Asian-Americans have only been able to elect one council member ever: Jennifer Kim in 2005. Unfortunately, she got whipped in a reelection campaign by Randi Shade in 2008.

When you have to run at-large in a city the size of Austin, it basically means you’ve got to have a ton of cash on hand. Or you’ve got to go into debt like most candidates seem to do. Lee Leffingwell is still between twenty and fifty thousand dollars in debt after his 2012 mayoral reelection campaign. On top of the whole money thing, when you run at-large you have to appeal to the most average, middle voter. In Austin, that basically means White, rich (even though rich people aren’t the city’s majority, they make up the majority of voters), and from West Austin. Not surprisingly, over the past 40 years, that’s where most of Austin’s elected officials have come from.

The Austin Bulldog published an awesome map of every council member and mayor elected since ’71 and plotted where they lived. 88% of the mayors elected came from the 78703 or 78731 zip codes. 34% of all 100 council members went to people living in West Austin. The report went on to say that over half of the council members elected lived within three miles of City Hall, and that the further from City Hall you looked, the fewer people elected you’d find. Nobody has ever been elected from 78741, home of The Austin Cut (Roberts for Mayor 2015!) and the whole Southside has been extremely under represented (19%) despite being home to 40% of Austin.

Obviously I’m not the first person to realize that our current representation is unequal and this isn’t the first time that anyone has tried to change how people are elected. An option to change our system to a geographic or mixed (a system with at-large seats and geographic districts) representation has been put on the ballot six times in the past. All have failed.

The closest any geographic system has come to passing was an 8-0-1 (eight geographic districts, no at-large seats, one mayor) that included an independent commission to draw the district boundaries. It lost by 2% of the vote. The most recent redistricting proposition went on the ballot in 2002, when council pushed for an 8-2-1 plan (eight geographic districts, two at-large seats, and one mayor). It lost by 6%. November 2012 will be the second time 8-2-1 goes to vote.

In the years since 2002, the council has entertained the idea of giving geographic representation another go. They created a Charter Revision Commission (CRC), a team of 15 people they handpicked themselves, who were supposed to be representative of the city. The CRC was supposed to explore all sorts of different plans and ideas, and make a recommendation on whether or not Austin should even attempt geographic representation, what plan would be best, and who should be in charge of drawing the geographic districts.

The issue of redistricting might seem like an obscure technicality to a lot of people, but the best way to control the outcome of an election is to control the way that votes are counted. Let’s say there’s a neighborhood that is going to vote for candidate X and official Y doesn’t like X. Let’s also say that official Y is in control of drawing the district maps. A normal, fair map would make one district out of the neighborhood in question and candidate X would get elected. But since official Y wants to get rid of candidate X, Y divides the X-supporting neighborhood into a bunch of different districts with candidate Y-supporters outnumbering X-supporters in each. Now candidate X will lose. This is the basic way that Democratic voters are “gerrymandered” at the Texas state level. These techniques have been used against all kinds of minority groups in the past, and this is the main reason why people are calling for an independent redistricting committee.

After months of meetings, discussion, and some disagreement, the CRC voted on three different issues: on the issue of putting a system of geographic representation on the ballot, the CRC voted “yes” 14-1. In an 8-7 vote, the CRC specifically recommended the 10-1 plan (ten-geographic districts, no at-large seats, and one mayor). All but two people voted “yes” on recommending an independent redistricting committee. The two men against, David Butts (a political consultant who’s been behind the campaigns of many elected council members and mayors) and Dr. Fred McGhee, along with the others who voted against recommending the 10-1 plan, would go on to form Austin Community for Change (AC4C), the group promoting this year’s 8-2-1 plan.

For some reason, the council decided to ignore their hand-picked CRC and voted to put the 8-2-1 plan on the November ballot instead. Supporters of the 10-1 plan accused the council of voting in their own self-interest, wanting to keep the power to draw their own district lines.

Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), the group that formed from the CRC around the 10-1 plan, must have seen this coming, because the whole time they’d been out collecting signatures for their CD10-1 proposition. CD10-1 is short for “Citizens Districting” 10-1, a ten-geographic district, no at-large, and one mayor plan with an independent citizens districting committee. They ended up collecting 33,000 signatures. After sorting through them, they’d gathered 22,435 valid signatures. According to the law, any petition with over 20,000 goes on the ballot. Now, both the 10-1 and 8-2-1 plans are set to appear on November’s 2012 presidential ballot right next to each other.

During my interviews with both AGR and AC4C, it became clear that during the CRC process some serious shit went down and both sides started to hate each other. Hilariously bitter and rude comments were the highlight of conversations with almost everyone I interviewed.

Members of AGR accused the council of trying to kill the CD10-1 plan by putting this “competing” 8-2-1 next to it, confusing voters, and “Ralph Nadering” the redistricting proposal. AC4C supporters accused 10-1 folks of straight up refusing to look at any research on the topic and name-calling.

Now that you understand that “people are fighting,” as someone from AC4C summarized an Austin Chronicle article on redistricting, I’m going to break down each of these propositions, so you’ll be ready to make an informed decision in November.

Remember that you’re allowed to vote for both propositions. If both pass (more “yes” votes than “no”), then the one with more “yes” votes becomes law. In this case, any change will be better than keeping things the way they are.


Caption: This map shows the distribution of elected council members and mayors since 1971. The darker the zip code, the more representation the region has received. 78703 has dominated Austin politics for the past 40 years. Combined with ‘31 and ‘59, over half of all representation has gone to West Austin. (Thanks to The Austin Bulldog for the statistics.)

Council Draws the Lines: 8-2-1

The 8-2-1 plan calls for Austin to be split into eight districts, with one council member elected from each. Two at-large council members and the mayor will be voted on by the whole city. The eight district lines will be drawn by the council members themselves.

The AC4C website hosts a document written by Julio Gonzalez Altamirano called “Fair Today Fair Tomorrow: Why a hybrid city council is the unifying choice for Austin.” (Altamirano also runs a blog called “Keep Austin Wonky,” where he analyzes Austin politics and policy from a fairly scientific point-of-view. On the phone, he talks like a human law dictionary, which was impressive to say the least.)

The document starts by telling us that in a study of over 7,000 cities across the U.S., the only groups of people that were “significantly helped by single-member districts” were African American males. (Note: Single Member Districts (SMDs) is another term for geographical districts where one person is elected. These are the core of the 10-1 proposal.)It goes on to argue that “women candidates are modestly hurt” by geographical districts.

So I read the scholarly articles referenced by the position paper and found the following: White women, not all women, were statistically elected less often from single member districts. Minority women didn’t seem to be affected. The researchers didn’t really know why this was, but guessed that it could just be the result of a White woman having to go head-on against a man in a small arena.

The paper argues at-length that minority groups who are spread across a large area (examples were Asian-Americans, gay people, possibly even renters) wouldn’t be able to get representation by single-member districts. It goes on to argue that with at-large seats, these groups would have a chance at being represented, especially down the line if their populations are growing like Asian-Americans in Austin are.

Theoretically, it is possible for minorities to be elected to the at-large seats. And over time, an at-large seat might allow for a greater number of possible voices to be heard. Looking back, we’ve seen that the first Asian-American was elected in 2005, despite the Asian American population being very small (as of 2010, it was 6.3% of Austin). The first Latino—and non-West Austin or downtown—mayor was elected in 2001. But these percentages aren’t very high when you consider Austin’s entire history. There’s also the example of Glen Maxey, the first openly-gay member of the Texas House of Representatives, who was elected from a single-member district.

So I called Altamirano, since he wrote the paper, and asked whether or not we should assume that the two at-large seats would go to West Austin like most of them have in the past. He argued, yes, that it “seems intuitive to assume the past pattern will continue” but that the inequality is minor compared to the “downsides with an exclusively geographic approach.” Once people are voting inside geographic areas, he went on, geographic “overrepresentation” would continue, but on a smaller scale. Instead of rich West Austin getting elected too often, sub-areas of districts would start winning too often. He’s basically saying that since you can’t ever stop people from complaining about unfair representation, that West Austin’s overrepresentation is a minor sacrifice compared to what he sees as the benefits of at-large seats. Assuming this is true for a second, what would those benefits be?

The AC4C paper argues that in the case someone isn’t being represented by their own district council member, they’d be able to go to their at-large council member as a back-up. This might be theoretically true, but consider the example the AC4C paper gives: “renters, people with disabilities.” How good have the current at-large council members been at listening to these generally fucked-over groups? Why would an at-large official listen to these groups if their voting base is rich, White Austin?

The third and most stressed point that Altamirano and I talked about was runaway spending. “Fair Today Fair Tomorrow” attacks 10-1’s purely single member district proposal, saying that since it will shift politics to a neighborhood-centered mindset, large amounts of money will be spent on hugely expensive projects that will only benefit people living near them. The AC4C paper also argues that the problem will be worsened by “log-rolling,” which happens when council members trade votes on projects that won’t benefit their districts for votes on projects that will.

Statistics and scholarly research show that the more elected seats there are, the bigger the government gets, and the more money it will spend. This is partially due to log-rolling. Particularly, Altamirano’s research cites Reza Baqir’s “Districting and Government Spending,” an article that investigates whether increased seats increases government spending and what kind of systems can break the pattern. As a basic rule, Baqir finds that as “the number of players” (council members) increases, so does the amount of money spent. But he goes on to say that “although critics of district systems may have been right in thinking that district systems contribute to more government spending, they were likely wrong in supposing that at-large council members would not cater to particular constituencies within the jurisdiction.”

The only system where more council members didn’t mean more money spent or more log-rolling was when a “strong” mayor was present. (A strong mayor has the power to veto other council members’ propositions and can only be overruled by a near-unanimous council vote.) Currently, Austin’s mayor has the same amount of power as the other council members and no veto power. Neither the 10-1 or the 8-2-1 plans included a strong mayor proposal.

So even though AC4C claims that 10-1 will make Austin a “public expenditure outlier,” keep in mind that both the 10-1 and 8-2-1 plans add the same number of council seats. Also keep in mind that no research shows that at-large council members can stop the spending increase. Therefore, according to the research, we can expect both systems to affect spending in the same way.

The 8-2-1 position is heavily centered on theory and research. While the founding members seem to agree that at-large seats should be an important part of Austin’s future, they don’t address whether or not there should be an independent, “citizen’s” redistricting committee. As a proposition, the 8-2-1 plan wouldn’t do anything special with districting and, like the rest of Texas, the council would be able to draw their own district lines.

I called Dr. Fred McGhee, one of AC4C’s founding members and a member of the council’s CRC, to ask him why he was one of the only people who opposed an independent redistricting committee. “It’s a solution in search of a problem,” he said, “and our charter is already extremely bureaucratic and unwieldy.” On his blog he went into depth about the issue: “I am not persuaded by those who argue that corrupt and corrupted politicians draw their own gerrymandered lines and therefore rig the rules of the game. This is not the point—of course they do. The question is whether a supposedly ‘impartial’ [independent redistricting committee] is the best way of fixing the problem.”

A better redistricting solution, in his opinion, would be led by the city demographer and council would have the final say over the map. He did go on to argue that this problem goes all the way to the top and what we really need is a total overhaul of the Texas Constitution. I think everyone can agree with that. But what this comes down to is should we wait around for the perfect solution? Or should we actively try to prevent known problems?


Caption: Latinos are quickly becoming a larger percent of the City. By 2020, it's estimated that Latinos will make up around half of Austin. Some 8-2-1 proponents argue that, while at-large seats might go to richer (White) candidates now, in the future Latinos will have a better chance at them.

Some Random People Draw the Lines: 10-1

Under proposition 3, the 10-1 plan with an Independent Citizen’s Redistricting Commission (ICRC), Austin would be drawn into ten districts, with one council member elected from each, and one mayor elected city-wide. The ten districts would be drawn by a group of people selected by a specific process that was modeled after California’s move toward independent redistricting committees. The plan was designed by AGR and signed by over 30,000 Austinites.

The process is meant to avoid the problems we see at the Texas State level, where the district lines are drawn to maximize Republican power, or in Dallas, where the city is being sued for diluting minority voting power. The proposed 14-member ICRC starts with a call for applications. The applications are screened by the City Auditor and 3 randomly chosen auditors to make sure that nobody who applies has, in the recent past: been an elected official, been involved in a political campaign, been a lobbyist, donated over $1,000 to city candidates, or been an employee of the city. 60 applicants will be selected by the auditors (who are forbidden to communicate with council) and made public. Council members will have a chance to remove one applicant each from the pool for whatever reason. Eight names will be drawn randomly and publicly from the remaining applicants. These people will serve on the commission. These eight people will democratically appoint the remaining six members while making sure the ICRC is diverse racially, ethnically, by gender, geographically, etc.

As you can see, this process is a long shot from the one we’d see under the 8-2-1 plan where the council would choose their closest colleagues and allies to help them draw the maps. The ICRC actually goes further and has stipulations on what commission members can do after serving. They can’t be elected for 10 years afterwards, or become a city consultant or staff for three years afterwards. The goal is to keep districting and city business as separate as possible.

Peck Young, AGR’s leader, has been drawing Texas district maps for over 40 years and knows how fucked Texas politics can get. He told me about one of his most blatantly corrupt experiences from a rural Texas county: “I’d just been hired and a judge announced we were taking a 20-minute recess, looked at me and said, ‘come into my office, son.’ I walked right back in his office and he looked at me and said, ‘now I got a list of people you’re gonna fuck for me, you understand?’ and he handed me the names of two commissioners and two JPs and he said, ‘I don’t give a damn how you do it, but I don’t want to see these people in office next year and I hired your ass to see to it, do you understand me boy?’”

This is the type of deal-making that AGR insists will happen without an independent redistricting committee. Unlike other states’ “independent” committees, Austin’s won’t truly be independent by balancing an equal number of Democrats with Republicans and inserting one non-partisan member. (This is what they do in Colorado.) The goal is to keep the entire process as non-political as possible.

AC4C’s Fred McGhee was, again, skeptical and argued that you can’t possibly take politics out of a political process. Maybe not, but AGR seem like they’re determined to try. Peck Young continued: “Now what I want, and what we want as a group, is for us to be as far away from that old judge as we can physically and legally get. And to be blunt, boys working on 8-2-1 would embrace that judge, everything but his language.”

But the redistricting issue isn’t the only problem that people have with the 10-1 plan. Some of the Asian-American community is concerned that they aren’t going to be represented under a purely geographical system, since their numbers are low and spread across a large Area.

When I asked Young about this, he pointed to statistical data that AGR had come up with, arguing that while it might not be possible to create an Asian majority district, that it is possible to draw a district centered around North of 183 that has an Asian population of about 16%. This district would be almost “four times as Asian” as Austin is city-wide, and it would look similar to San Antonio’s district 9, which is currently held by an Asian representative.

Altamirano, in particular, argued that growing minority groups (especially Latinos) who supported single-member districts were working against their own best interests. Since Latinos are supposed to become a majority in Austin by 2020, he questioned why they’d want to settle for two or three districts, when they’d theoretically be able to dominate the at-large seats in the future.

Single member districts don’t necessarily harm large, dispersed Hispanic populations, though. If we look at San Antonio, which has a 10-1 system, we see the city is about 60% Hispanic and that 6 out of the 10 single member districts are filled by Hispanics. The only at-large seat is the mayor, who also happens to be Latino. “Fair Today Fair Tomorrow” argues that San Antonio’s district 5, an area which has a Hispanic population of 95%, was drawn to pack as many Latino votes into one district as possible and that the rest of the Hispanics were divided across other districts. But Peck Young, who was involved with San Antonio’s 10-1 redistricting, said the reason why district 5 was created with a 95% Hispanic population is because there’s a neighborhood in district 5 with a 95% Hispanic population. Either way you look at it, it’s hard to argue that Latinos aren’t being represented fairly in San Antonio under the 10-1 system.


Caption: This is a map created from San Antonio's districts, and from 2010 census data (courtesy of Eric Fischer's "Racial Division Maps.") As you can see, district 5 (at the Southwestern middle part of the city) is drawn heavily Latino (yellow dots). 8-2-1 proponents argue that this is an example of packing, a way of diluting minority voting power, while Peck Young (a 10-1 proponent who helped draw the San Antonio districts) says this map represents a heavily-Latino neighborhood, nothing more. San Antonio is 60% Latino and their current council is 60% Latino (not including their Mayor, who is also Latino). Arguments like this are common to redistricting. Note: a yellow/orange dot represents Latino, red represents White, blue represents Black, and green represents Asian.

The case of Blacks in Austin, like in other major cities, is a tricky one. For one reason or another, some Blacks are leaving Austin while others are dispersing around the city. Under the Voting Rights Act, there has to be a district where Blacks have a shot at electing a representative. According to Peck Young, with 10 districts, it’s possible to draw a district where the Blacks have a plurality (the highest percentage, but not a majority) of the citizens voting age population. With 8 geographic districts, he claims, the potential Black district will have a White plurality.

When I asked to look at the maps, it was clear that AGR was wary of a reporter getting ahold of them and releasing them. The maps are to be drawn by the citizens, Young explained. That’s what the group decided and that’s how the maps are going to be drawn.

The arguments that 10-1 will harm minority representation, create a log-rolling environment, and the citizens districting proposition has the potential to create even more problems, haven’t stopped several groups from backing the proposition. As of August 2012, 28 organizations have endorsed the 10-1 plan, including the Austin NAACP, Austin Firefighters Association, Austin Police Association, UT Student Government, Central Texas Republican Assembly, Austin Neighborhood’s Council, Mexican American Democrats, Travis County Green Party, Austin Central Labor Council, and more. (You can find a full list at the Citizens Districting 10-1 website.)

Book Smart vs. Street Smart

Could Citizens Districting 10-1 be an overly optimistic, obvious reaction against all of the inequality that’s been dragging most people in this city down for so long? Yes. It’s possible that in their attempt to find a way to keep the most obvious and corrupt behind-the-scenes dealmakers out of the districting process, they might have overlooked some research and political theory. There could be problems down the road with their redistricting commission, or with the single member districts.

AGR might have focused so much energy into disrupting our current system where the richest areas of town get the most representation that they’ve entered “class war” territory, as one 10-1 critic said. But if it’s classism when you fight against handing excessive representation to the rich, what do you call it when the rich get more than their fair share of representation for 40 years?

The AC4C people are angry. I get it. They feel like they’re being made into the “bad guys,” the “insiders,” when all they feel like they’re trying to do is have an intellectual, theoretical argument about the whole thing. But at what point do you take your nose out of the books, and realize that a lot of the answers are staring right at you? Yes, theoretically more voices can possibly be heard over time by an at-large seat, but how many different voices have really been heard over the past 40 years right here in Austin? If there’s anything that 8-2-1 is guilty of, it’s trying so hard to find the perfect plan, a plan that no theory or statistical analysis can punch a hole in, that what they have is something that was already pushed by council ten years ago and got its ass kicked.

There will never be a perfect representation proposal. No matter what proposition we put on the ballot, and no matter how hard we try to avoid them, mistakes are going to be made. Problems are going to come up and we’ll deal with them when they do.

I know this is the corniest shit on Earth to say, but I’ve really got to: VOTE. Register if you haven’t. (You can do it with your food stamps application, which you’re going to need once taxes and water rates go up this year.) We’ve got the highest rent of the major Texas cities, one of highest average household incomes, and yet more people in Austin are struggling to get by than in Texas overall. We didn’t vote ourselves into this problem, but we might be able to vote ourselves out of it.

If you’re tied up about which proposition to vote for, and you know that you don’t want to vote for both, think about this: What kind of council hand-picks a group to tell them which redistricting plan to choose, but then totally ignores their decision? And how much better are they going to be at “listening” to their own Redistricting Commission when it draws a map that doesn’t favor the council?

Update: I had a lot of people ask me for the City Demographer's powerpoint, so I decided to just upload it here. I'm also adding a link to the "Fair Today Fair Tomorrow" position paper.

Austin Demographics 2010 (PPT) - Making sense of the census

"Fair Today Fair Tomorrow: Why a hybrid city council is the unifying choice for Austin"


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