In yesterday’s installment we looked at whether the Prop A election — Save Austin Now’s petition driven referendum on whether to require two cops per 1,000 residents — will more closely resemble May’s election on the reinstatement of the camping ban (Prop B) or or the Strong Mayor proposal. Prop B passed by 57% to 43% while voters obliterated the Strong Mayor proposal by an 86% to 14% margin. In this segment we will examine campaign coalitions and likely voting blocs in the upcoming Prop A election. On that, May Prop B provides the best template from which to work.
The strong mayor election does not work as a model because that election was an anamoly when it came to coalitions. It uniquely offered voters from wildly different persuasions and ideologies an opportunity to unite in a common cause — even as they realized they would soon be quarreling again. For just one example, during the Strong Mayor contest many advocates for both defunding the police and for increasing the size of the force opposed a switch to Strong Mayor. That alliance is just not a possibility this time around.
Prop A will follow a more traditional, and more (May) Prop B-like pattern. The question is how much. Let’s look at the math and geography on that.
Prop B won in many reliably lefty precincts in the central city. Other lefty areas in central Austin delivered majorities against Prop B, but not by the lopsided margins those precincts routinely produce for liberal or progressive causes and candidates. Meanwhile, Prop B piled up big margins in most of what are usually considered swing precincts. The biggest and most consistent margins for Prop B were in suburban areas where there are more Republicans than in other parts of Austin.
Save Austin Now can count on Republicans as a solid voting block again. In Austin, however, that does not mean anything near a majority. So Save Austin Now will once again have to win some central city precincts or at least cut into the margins by which Republican policies usually get hammered there. This is the fundamental reason that Save Austin Now claims to be a bipartisan group even though they have yet to produce anyone who has been visibly active in any Democratic campaign or initiative.
On the other hand there are certainly Democrats who favor police reform, but who do not support defunding the police and believe that the Council went too far with their budget vote. Such Democrats, along with Independents will be key to the Prop A outcome, but far from the only factor.
While Austin Republicans are the base for Save Austin Now, police reform or criminal justice advocates form the most solid base against Prop A. (Another term would be social justice advocates.) Local leaders of that movement have expressed concern that a Prop A win could derail ongoing efforts at reform. So No Way On Prop A, the anti-Prop A campaign, can count on local criminal justice and police reform advocates to vote in high percentages against the proposition. A big question is how many will turn out to vote in an off year election and without the impetus of an historic situation like the George Floyd protests.
So turnout among these voters will be critical to the outcome, but, although police reform has wide support in Austin, the advocates are unlikely to be able to alone muster a majority to defeat Prop A. Attesting to that, the criminal justice advocates currently opposing Prop A were also opposed to Prop B. Prop B, however, won. That would indicate that defeating Prop A will require a broader coalition than just criminal justice advocates.
This brings us back to voters who support police reform, but do not support Defunding the Police or cutting the number of police — at least not to the level that has occurred since the Council budget vote last year. As detailed in the previous article, Prop A also raises serious budgetary and governance concerns. By requiring a set number of police — much higher than both the current total as well as the number before the Council budget cuts — it will require either large budget increases or cuts to other General Fund Departments like Parks, Libraries or even EMS and Fire. Budget increases will almost certainly have to come from property tax increases, as the Independent detailed in earlier articles. State law, however, strictly limits how much property taxes can be raised annually. So that points back toward budget cuts.
The No Way On Prop A campaign will have to convince and turn out voters who believe the proposal costs too much or takes away too much local governance flexibility. There is likely a lot of overlap between such voters and the aforementioned voters who do not support defunding the police, but still support police reform.
Any winning anti-Prop A coalition will have to feature a spectrum of views on police staffing. Groups like the Austin Justice Coalition and the Austin City-Community Reimagining Public Safety Task Force continue to support defunding the police. On its home page for instance the Austin Justice Coalition asks visitors to “IMAGINE A WORLD WITHOUT POLICE.” Below that visitors have the option of clicking on a video to elaborate on a world without police or they can click on a link reading, “Defund APD;” which goes to a summary of the group’s efforts to do just that.
Likewise, the Austin City-Community Reimagining Public Safety Task Force is sticking with its recommendations that include, among other things: “no more cadet classes;” phasing out “all use of deadly weapons;” to “defund” mounted patrol, park police, and overtime; and end Austin’s participation in the U.S. Marshal’s Lone Star Fugitive Task Force, which has captured several of the suspects in Austin’s record number of murders this year.
I have not seen any local polls on policing, but polls around the country show large majorities against defunding the police. While Austin might perhaps have a higher percentage for defunding than the American average, it is very unlikely that Defund the Police is a majority position among the Austin electorate.
The danger here for No Way On Prop A is that even if voters support police reform they will want to permanently head off any further cutting of the police force by putting Prop A in place. No Way On Prop A has to count on a substantial number of voters making a more nuanced choice of turning down the 2.0 cops per 1,000 residents — with its large price tag and constraints on City governance — even though they oppose further thinning of the APD ranks. It is how voters in the middle work through these issues that will likely determine the election outcome.
Another hope would be that the active members of these two political groups learn more about each other as part of being on the same side in the Prop A campaign, and then utilize that deeper understanding to forge an ongoing alliance and resulting policy compromises going forward.
Now, in closing, let’s look at how this might all play out on election night from a geographical and precinct standpoint.
The Political Geography of Prop A
The thinking here is that progressive precincts are probably less likely to go for (November) Prop A than they were for (May) Prop B. That’s largely because the issue more closely resembles the national argument between Democrats and Republicans over policing and that might persuade Austin Democrats to vote against Prop A. Also, the rising profile of Republican County Chair Matt Mackowiak could inspire Democrats to turn out and vote against Prop A to prevent him from chalking up another victory, not to mention letting him again establish lasting City policy.
On the other hand, as with Prop B, the drop in the number of police officers and the increase in crime has caused anger and deep unease among many Austin residents throughout the City — very similar to the way homeless encampments did. Many of these voters don’t fall neatly into any ideological camp or political party.
So, to win again, Save Austin Now will have to turn out Republicans en masse while still holding on to at least some central city voters who supported Prop B. On the flip side No Way On Prop A will have to deliver bigger margins in the central city than Prop B did, or Prop A will also pass. Swing precincts will of course also be critical to the outcome.
As already noted, another critical factor is whether social justice advocates can turn out their rank and file supporters in large numbers, or whether many of those voters turn out to be surge voters and don’t show up for the off year election. Another long shot possibility is that some Republicans, of the more traditional sort, could balk at the cost — if they figure out how it will hit them directly. That would take rising above the din of rhetoric coming from Save Austin Now, but is not totally out of the realm of possibility.
Likewise, and more likely, if voters in the central city deliver large margins like they usually do for progressive causes then Prop A likely goes down. If central city precincts vote no in large margins and some Republicans defect from the cause out of fiscal concerns, then Prop A could be headed for a strong mayor like defeat — although almost certainly by a smaller margin than the trouncing administered to the strong mayor effort.
Much more likely, however, is that the election will be close. Consequently, combatants on all sides would do well to turn out and vote. Early voting begins Monday October 18 and ends Friday October 29. Election day is November 2.
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