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Social Issues - Are We Headed for a Crazy Austin Election?

- In 2012, Austin switched from a open seating city council format to a 10-1 district plan with representatives from each of the ten districts.
- In 2020, the City started ...
a redistricting plan that attempted to equally distribute population throughout the ten districts.
If a lawsuit challenging that redistricting plan is successful, all ten district seats could be up for election this November.
- There has been a lot of talk recently about who is going to be running for office in Austin in November. Indeed, with Mayor Adler finishing his term, Kirk Watson and Celia Israel seem to be the front runners for the open Mayor seat. And a number of candidates have thrown their names in the ring for the open City Council seats.

But that is where things kind of get interesting.
There is an ongoing lawsuit that could throw the November Austin election into disarray. It has the potential to be a huge issue. If successful, it could challenge the whole election and city council system this year. And yet, until recently we had not heard much about this lawsuit.

So that’s what we are going to talk about this week. Not only the upcoming election but how they could be thrown off kilter by an outstanding lawsuit.

How the Austin City Council is Set Up
To understand the ramifications and reasoning of the lawsuit, you must first understand the history of the Austin City Council. Prior to 2012, the Austin City Council was open seating. That means that the City Council members could come from anywhere within the City.

That changed in November 2012 when Austin residents elected to move to a 10-1 system. This created 10 regional districts which would each send a member to sit on City Council from that district.*

Part of that change was that the City was to redraw the districts every ten years. As a result, the City undertook a proposal and hearing process to redraw the districts based on the shifting population. That process started in 2020 and has now been completed. The new districts are scheduled to go into effect for the 2022 elections.

Lawsuit Challenges Austin Redistricting
Well that is where things got kind of messy. Austin city council members are elected to four year terms. The city, therefore, staggers the elections. So some of the seats are up for election every two years.

But because of redistricting, there are some residents that voted for a council member in 2018 but are no longer in that district. As a result, they will not vote for a council member for six years – from 2018 to 2024.

Some of those residents, therefore, filed a lawsuit claiming that they were effectively disenfranchised from voting for city council. As a result, they wanted the court to force the City to call elections in all ten districts and have every council member seat up for election this year. As I am sure you can see, this would cause quite a stir on the Austin election scene as the council members who did not intend to run again this year would have to run for his or her seat this November.

As I was writing this article, the local district court granted the City’s request for summary judgment against the plaintiffs. As a result, the lawsuit could be dismissed. But that does not mean the fight is over.

The Plaintiffs had already asked the Court of Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court to hear the matter. And the Supreme Court has said it will hear the appeal. As a result, it will have the final say on whether Austin will have to have ten district court elections this November. And, if that happens, it could be a wild few months leading up to that election.


*The extra “1” is for the mayor.
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