May elections are a tradition for voters who live in the cities of Rollingwood and West Lake Hills, but because of changes to the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, the voting schedule is changing for some residents.
A new federal rule has extended the time election officials must send ballots to citizens who are overseas to 45 days before a primary election. Traditionally, primary elections are held in March, and primary runoff elections are held in April. The extension pushes the primary runoff election dates to May, the same time some municipalities are holding their city votes.
Having two separate elections in the same time frame can be confusing for voters. One solution is to move municipal elections to November during the national elections, a route Rollingwood has decided to take. Leaders of West Lake Hills have opted to keep their city elections in May. Both cities contract with Travis County, which runs their elections.
Rollingwood City Secretary Robin Ryan says the cost of running more than one May election was the biggest factor that prompted council members to move its elections to November.
“Normally, our elections are in the $500 to $600 range [cost to the city],” she said. “We were told keeping our elections in May was going to double or triple our fees.”
In addition, Ryan says council members believe that the city would benefit from having municipal issues on the November ballot since there is typically a higher turnout during general elections.
City leaders in West Lake Hills disagree.
“A move to November means that city issues and races could get lost in the shuffle,” said Robert Wood, city administrator for West Lake Hills. “City elections don’t have the same publicity as the larger national races. There’s a danger some people won’t even notice city issues are on the ballot.”
Wood also worries stacking municipal votes on top of national votes could tire voters.
“You vote for the president and for other national level–type offices, then you get to the state level. One of the things we’ve learned [is that]people don’t even finish the ballot. It takes the focus away from city elections.”
Another concern Wood has is partisan voting. He says by combining local and national races, overtly partisan issues might lead voters to automatically vote partisan on city issues.
“Right now in West Lake Hills, people don’t run [for local office]as a Republican or Democrat,” Wood said. “We want to keep it about the issues.”
Election dates are expected to be one of the topics lawmakers discuss during the current legislative session. Dana DeBouvoir, Travis County Clerk and county elections overseer, said election officials have received backlash from voters about the changes, but that ultimately, voter satisfaction is her main concern.
“We are seeing some cities and schools reluctant to give up their long-held and much-loved May election date, but we don’t have an answer from them regarding what they want to do about voter confusion,” she said. “I do not want to have an election on top of an election, but if the Legislature lets this confusion continue, voters will be stuck with it. We want to do this to help overseas and military voters, but we also don’t want to make it difficult for voters here.”