Most of the candidates in runoff elections for two Galveston council districts predict very low voter turnout in balloting that begins Monday and culminates June 18 on Election Day.
Putting your money on low turnout is a safe bet in most elections and at every level of government, but the numbers recently generated in Galveston municipal elections are so small they provide a clear and compelling example of why low turnout is a problem.
They also may indicate a deeper problem, however, for which there’s a potential solution deserving a frank community discussion.
Districts 1 and 3 are up for grabs in the runoff. They ended up in runoffs because numerous candidates stood in the general election, dividing the vote so that none took a majority.
Most candidates campaigned vigorously, offering clear differences in platforms and priorities, and there was a lot of atmospheric heat around the races because the incumbents had inspired both ardent support and opposition.
That’s everything a political contest is supposed to offer, maybe a little more. Despite that, the numbers of ballots cast May 7 were low — 446 total in District 1; 526 in District 3.
That means municipal leaders are being selected by groups of people so small they’d be written off as statistically insignificant in most other means of comparison.
The numbers help explain a trend we’ve called “districtification” and have criticized the council about. What politician wouldn’t dig in along his district’s perimeter and focus on constituent service when his fate will be determined by so few people?
You could argue districtification also is partly responsible for the fact this year’s general election inspired the lowest turnout since 2008, and you’d have to worry the trend will continue and worsen.
Some civic-mined people see a link between low turnout and the fact the island is divided into six council districts. The theory is that since people can vote only for one council person and the mayor, they’ve come to believe their vote doesn’t matter.
Some people argue for changing to a 4-2-1 plan — four district seats, two at-large seats and a mayor elected at-large. Doing so would give each voter a say in four of seven council races, rather than only in two, and a shot at electing a council majority.
The main argument against the 4-2-1 plan is that it might undermine minority voting power. That is a great and legitimate concern, but there’s very little evidence the current arrangement is empowering minority voters in any but the most gratuitous way.
District 1 was drawn to ensure the election of an African-American council member. That has happened, but the district has passed back and forth between the same two people for about the past 10 years.
That may change this month. What’s more certain is the race will draw fewer than 500 votes. That’s not a sign of empowerment or enfranchisement; it’s a sign of disengagement.
Also undermining the minority-rights argument is that Galveston’s largest minority population, by 10 percentage points, is Hispanic, yet there’s no Hispanic district. It’s hard to argue six single-member districts are essential to ensuring minority voting rights on one hand, and accept that on the other.
Single-member districts came about for good reason and people had to work hard to get them, but it’s not wrong just by definition to question whether they are still relevant.
The 4-2-1 plan deserves a fair hearing.
• Michael A. Smith
Today in history
Today is the 157th day of 2016. There are 209 days left in the year.
On this date:
In 1794, Congress passed the Neutrality Act, which prohibited Americans from taking part in any military action against a country that was at peace with the United States.
In 1884, Civil War hero Gen. William T. Sherman refused the Republican presidential nomination, saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”
In 1916, the Arab Revolt against Turkish Ottoman rule began during World War I.
In 1933, the United States went off the gold standard.
In 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Henderson v. United States, struck down racially segregated railroad dining cars.
In 1963, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, resigned after acknowledging an affair with call girl Christine Keeler, who was also involved with a Soviet spy, and lying to Parliament about it.
In 1967, war erupted in the Mideast as Israel raided military aircraft parked on the ground in Egypt; Syria, Jordan and Iraq entered the conflict.
In 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated after claiming victory in California’s Democratic presidential primary; gunman Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was arrested.
In 1986, a federal jury in Baltimore convicted Ronald W. Pelton of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. (Pelton was sentenced to three life prison terms plus ten years.)
In 1997, former CIA officer Harold J. Nicholson was sentenced to 23 1/2 years in prison for selling defense secrets to Russia after the Cold War.
In 2004, Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, died in Los Angeles at age 93 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
On May 7, the citizens of Galveston overwhelmingly re-elected Jim Yarbrough to a second term as mayor of our community. I believe that this electoral victory was an affirmation of the positive direction in which Yarbrough, City Manager Brian Maxwell and the 2014-16 city council have led this community during the past two years.
City leadership is thinking in strategic instead of transactional terms. By and large, decisions are not “one offs;” they are made as part of a strategy guided by the framework of the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
The work that the city has embarked on in the neighborhoods north of Broadway and west of 25th Street is a good example of a strategic approach to addressing a long standing challenge. For decades, this area has been plagued with disinvestment, deteriorating infrastructure, abandoned properties and a reputation that branded it as “unsafe” at best. Under the leadership of Mayor Yarbrough, the city has begun an intentional effort to transform the image of and stimulate investment in the neighborhood.
Leading by example, the city is cleaning up, rehabbing and making improvements to all city-owned and operated facilities in this area. Beginning at City Hall with the demolition of the annex and the construction of a new central fire station and extending west to the redevelopment of the old Bersinger property on Market Street for the city of Galveston’s Public Works department to the repurposing of park space in the area as a dog park, city leadership is bringing people and resources into this neighborhood.
The Galveston Housing Authority’s mixed income development at the Cedars is attracting new residents to the neighborhood. The city is doing its part to support this investment with new lighting, sidewalks, improved appearance of the water storage tanks that are adjacent to these new housing units and stabilizing the historic Water Works building at 30th and Ball streets. GISD’s investment in Central Middle School is bringing results for the students who are educated on that historic campus. The city is right there doing its part to improve streets and signage.
The renaissance of the north of Broadway neighborhood is not just words … it is a strategic plan being deliberately implemented by city leadership with vision of what is possible for Galveston.
Just about a year ago, the Galveston Roundtable of Foundations invited Yarbrough and Maxwell to present the “state of the city” at a public meeting held on the Galveston College campus. The Seibel Center was full to overflowing with Galvestonians interested in the future of their community and enthusiastic about the new leadership at city hall. That event was so well received, the roundtable promised to host a similar event this year.
So, I hope you will join me at 5:30 p.m. June 13 back at the Seibel Center at Galveston College (corner of 39th Street and Avenue Q) for some light refreshments and a chance to visit with your fellow Galvestonians. The state of the city program will begin promptly at 6 p.m. I look forward to seeing you there.
Editor’s note: The Daily News is gathering questions for city officials to answer during the meeting. You can submit those to firstname.lastname@example.org.