A whopping 87 percent of voters did not cast a ballot in the May 4th municipal election for San Antonio mayor and city council, according to information provided by the Bexar County Elections Office.
San Antonio has 783,066 registered voters in its city limits.
Out of the about 13 percent of San Antonio’s electorate that did vote, only 6.33 percent chose incumbent Mayor Ron Nirenberg and 5.92 percent selected his leading challenger District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse. Seven other candidates split about three-quarters of a percent.
The preliminary total includes early voting and Election Day numbers but do not include all mail-in ballots yet. The San Antonio City Clerk’s office will canvass the official vote numbers on May 15.
Historically, low voter turnout is common during San Antonio’s municipal elections. H. Drew Galloway is the executive director of Move Texas. His organization’s mission is to help register voters for elections and increase engagement in civic issues.
He said municipal turnout has increased over the last five years but notes the low turnout could be attributed to voter confusion.
“I think that there’s more confusion around municipal turnout or municipal elections,” Galloway said. “Most people don’t know what the mayor and city council really do and how that affects them. It’s not amplified to the same level in the media that presidential or even statewide races here in Texas are amplified.”
Most people consider major elections to take place in November or the Fall and many may not realize an election is happening in May, Galloway added.
“I think that that’s something we’ve just got to build — that culture of voting — in city elections here in San Antonio.”
The trend of low voter turnout is no different than the last two election cycles in 2017 and 2015 — both of which went to runoffs as well. Although those two municipal elections had more than two high-profile candidates get larger shares of the votes.
The overall numbers amount to 49,539 votes for Mayor Nirenberg, 46,388 votes for Councilman Brockhouse and a combined 5,870 votes for the other seven candidates. That left Nirenberg with about 48 percent of the vote and Brockhouse with 45 percent, sending the two into a runoff.
Brockhouse’s high finish caught some by surprise. Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, credits much of Brockhouse’s support to the organized help from the public safety unions.
“They were — pretty much — the election organization for Brockhouse. They’re very structured, they’re very professional, they know what they’re doing and all that adds up to high turnout, high voter support for a particular candidate, in this case for Mr. Brockhouse.” Flores said. “Mayor Nirenberg has to rely on professional political consultants that rely on volunteers that don’t necessarily belong to any organization — or at least I didn’t hear of any organizations supporting Nirenberg like that.”
The San Antonio Police Officers’ Association and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association will often endorse political candidates, especially in city related elections. This year they both endorsed Brockhouse and have set out political messaging supporting him.
The fire union supported mayoral challenger Leticia Van De Putte in her run for Mayor in 2015 but she lost to the then incumbent Ivy Taylor.
Nirenberg and Brockhouse performed differently in the city’s 10 council districts with slim margins for some and large margins for others.
In District 1, which contains Downtown San Antonio and the near North Side, Nirenberg garnered more votes over Brockhouse. He also did well in his former north side District 8 council district and gained the upper hand in Districts 2, 3, 5, and 7. Those district include the East Side, South Side, West Side, and Northwest side of the city respectively.
Councilman Brockhouse heavily outperformed Nirenberg in District 6 — the far West Side — where he has served as its representative since the summer of 2017; as well as District 9 and 10 on the city’s far northside and northeast side. He gained the support of District 4 on the southwest side.
A sitting mayor has only been unseated twice in the last 23 years. Mayor Bill Thornton was ousted by fellow councilmember Howard Peak in 1997.
Twenty years later, Nirenberg defeated Mayor Ivy Taylor after her first term in 2017.
Flores said the results of the runoff will depend on who gets the most voters out to the polls.
“Whoever puts out the best and most efficient effort is going to win and in that case Brockhouse I think has the advantage given the support by the fire fighters union and the police union. They’re going to come out and try to hit the areas that they carry already and make sure they at least get those areas, those precincts back and try to cut into Mayor Nirenberg and those precincts that were relatively close,” Flores said. “On the other hand, Mayor Nirenberg is just going to try to hold what he had and try to increase his lead in those areas and makes sure he gets his people out.”
Nirenberg and Brockhouse will face eachother in a June 8th runoff election. City council districts 2, 4, and 6 will also have runoffs.
Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.