‘Unusual’ Southwest ISD election forces some San Antonio residents to vote twice
The Southwest Independent School District is holding both a trustee election and a $250 million bond election this May, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the Bexar County joint general ballot.
Even though Southwest ISD is located entirely in Bexar County, it holds elections in a different way that puts them on a separate ballot — and limits where voters can go to access those ballots. The method the district’s school board chooses to use forces people to vote twice during early voting if they want to vote for both the school board and San Antonio’s mayor. Even on Election Day, there are only a couple of polling sites that overlap.
Two of Southwest’s trustees want to change the way the district holds elections, but the board majority wants things to stay the way they are.
Outside Johnston Library on San Antonio’s West Side near Loop 410 recently, Yolanda Garza-Lopez pointed to a hilly street full of houses to the south.
“This street that runs through all the way to 410 — Lake Valley — I grew up on that street,” Garza-Lopez said. “Johnston Library has been the poll site for this community for many, many, many, many years.”
Garza-Lopez has been a trustee on the Southwest ISD school board since 2008. She’s running for re-election this year, but her name isn’t on the ballot at Johnston Library. Her old neighborhood is in Southwest ISD, but Johnston Library is just over the border in another school district.
If Southwest conducted joint elections with the City of San Antonio — like every other Bexar County school district that holds elections in May — Southwest voters would be able to vote in Southwest’s election at Johnston Library—or any other Bexar County early voting site.
But Southwest ISD’s school board chooses to conduct joint elections with the City of Lytle, a small town on the outskirts of Bexar County. That creates a separate ballot that can only be accessed at a handful of voting sites.
“That really, really suppresses the vote of the majority of the voters in our community,” Garza-Lopez said. “Not just because they have to go to a second site and access a second ballot, (but) because most of them don't even know they're missing our elections.”
A state law passed in 2006 requires school districts to conduct joint elections with a municipality located at least partially within their boundaries if they want to conduct elections in May.
That makes Southwest ISD’s choice to conduct joint elections with Lytle legal, but because Lytle is mostly located outside of the school district, it’s an unusual choice, said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
“While perfectly legal, and by no means nefarious on its face, the arrangement does raise a lot of questions,” said Blank. “The City of Lytle barely has a fingernail inside the school district, so it's unusual that they would have an arrangement with the city to help them conduct their elections.”
“If the result of this agreement has been that voters can or even have to vote in two different locations on Election Day, that kind of arrangement would be hard to justify.” - Joshua Blank, Texas Politics Project
Blank said the biggest question is whether it makes it easier for people to vote for their school board.
“At a quick glance, it doesn't look like it's necessarily making it easier,” Blank said. “Certainly more confusing and potentially harder.”
“If the result of this agreement has been that voters can or even have to vote in two different locations on Election Day, that kind of arrangement would be hard to justify,” Blank said. “Ultimately, anything that makes it more difficult for voters to cast a ballot, whether that be requiring them to ask for a second one, driving somewhere else, waiting in line, makes it less likely that they will fill out that ballot.”
Southwest ISD voters who live inside San Antonio’s city limits can definitely vote in two different locations on Election Day. In fact, they'll have to do some research if they want to avoid an extra trip.
According to Southwest ISD Board President Sylvester Vasquez Jr., the district started conducting joint elections with Lytle when the state law requiring joint elections went into effect. Vasquez has been on the board for 23 years.
“About 15 years ago they tried to force us to go to November,” Vasquez said. “They allowed us to stay in May if we teamed up with a municipality that ran elections in May, and that's how we started teaming up with Lytle. And it's worked just fine.”
Southwest also has the option of conducting elections with the City of San Antonio — the more urban half of the district is inside San Antonio’s city limits. But Vasquez said he doesn’t want to do that.
“Then we would have to open it up like we did in 2020,” Vasquez said.
The May 2020 elections were canceled because of the pandemic. In November, all school board issues are automatically placed on the general county ballot. Thousands more people voted in Southwest ISD’s ballot that year, compared to a normal May election.
"To me, the school board election is important enough to make it a concerted effort to go vote." - Ida Sudolcan, SWISD board vice-president.
Vasquez said he wants to keep Southwest elections on a separate ballot that’s only available inside the school district’s boundaries. He thinks a new trustee, Pete “Pedro” Bernal, was elected in 2020 because he was on the county ballot next to the race for president.
“He was elected under the 2020 situation and beat a board president that had been with us for over 30 years. It was a little disappointing,” Vasquez said. “I guarantee you those (thousands more) people that voted didn't know a whole lot of our board members that were running for election that year.”
Bernal also thinks he won because he was on the county ballot. But he thinks he broke through because being on the same ballot made it easier for people to vote. He also said he knocked on a lot of doors to make sure people knew his name.
“Everybody had a chance to vote. Everybody. Cause we're at large, so when you go with Bexar County you're allowing everybody in our district to vote,” Bernal said. “It was a good opportunity to reach out to people who’d never been reached out to before.”
More than 17,000 people voted in the Southwest ISD election in November 2020. Most May elections have less than a thousand voters.
Garza-Lopez said that was a light-bulb moment for her — it made her realize why voter turnout is so low for most Southwest ISD elections.
“Initially, I was just trying to get more people to come vote in our elections,” Garza-Lopez said.
By the time she was old enough to vote, Garza-Lopez had moved away from her old neighborhood into a neighborhood outside San Antonio’s city limits, so she said she didn’t realize city voters were having to locate two separate ballots in May.
“I vote with the county (in November),” Garza-Lopez said. Because Southwest ISD conducts at-large elections, school board trustees can live anywhere in the district.
Garza-Lopez said she thought the rest of the school board would also realize they needed to make a change after 2020, but that didn’t end up happening.
“How can this district say that it supports its students when it is actively suppressing the vote of their parents and the families of this community?" - Yolanda Garza-Lopez, SWISD trustee.
During the board vote to conduct joint elections with Lytle in 2022, the board’s vice-president, Ida Sudolcan, said Southwest ISD’s elections get lost in the city ballot.
"Too many voters go uninformed and we get lost in that list," Sudolcan said. "To me, the school board election is important enough to make it a concerted effort to go vote."
Sudolcan said San Antonio's ballot was "too politically hot" and could lead to trustees being elected with the wrong intentions — or even cause the district to be taken over by the state. While state oversight has drawn a lot of attention lately, only a handful of school districts are under state oversight, even though most school districts are on their county ballot.
“They get elected because they have the right last name, they have the right gender," Sudolcan said. "I think it should be intentional to go vote for the school board. That's why I do not want to go with the city.”
Vasquez also said he wanted Southwest’s voters to be informed voters. But Joshua Blank with the Texas Politics Project said that’s not their call to make.
“Ultimately, they don't get to choose the voters who vote in the election. The voters who are eligible get an opportunity to vote, and it’s up to election administrators in this state to make sure they have every opportunity to do so,” Blank said.
Last year, Sudolcan and Vasquez were up for re-election. This year, Bernal and Garza-Lopez are on the ballot.
Garza-Lopez said she’s heard people say she and Bernal aren’t focusing enough on students because they’re campaigning to change the way Southwest conducts elections. But she said the students are the reason she wants things to change.
“How can this district say that it supports its students when it is actively suppressing the vote of their parents and the families of this community?” Garza-Lopez said.
Southwest’s usual May turnout is low compared to other school districts with May elections. Harlandale ISD, a slightly smaller district nearby, had 72% more voters in 2021.
Southwest ISD’s early voting places are Christa McAuliffe Middle School and the district’s administrative building. Lytle City Hall, Big Country Elementary, Bob Hope Elementary, and Sky Harbor Elementary are also open on Election Day.
Three SWISD Election Day sites are also Bexar County Joint General Election Day voting centers. Residents who want to vote in both the San Antonio and the SWISD elections without traveling to a second polling site can vote at Bob Hope Elementary, Christa McAuliffe Middle School, and the SWISD Administrative Building on May 6.
Although SWISD conducts joint elections with Lytle, the district contracts with the Bexar County Elections Office to administer it.