Popular petition seeks to reform El Paso City Council elections
Verónica Carbajal is taking the lessons she learned during her unsuccessful 2020 bid to become El Paso’s first Latino mayor and using them to try to change the rules surrounding municipal elections.
El Pasoans for Fair Elections, a special-purpose committee tied to the political action committee Justicia Fronteriza which she co-founded in 2021, is preparing a petition that would compel the El Paso City Council to submit three proposals to the November ballot that would reshape how candidates for mayor and municipal representatives are funded and elected.
The group aims to submit the required 11,000 petition signatures to the city clerk’s office by May 13. As of May 1, it had collected nearly 7,000 signatures.
The goal, Carbajal said, is to reduce the influence of wealthy donors — both in the electoral process and on city government decisions after the elections — and to diversify the pool of candidates.
“Currently, city council candidates who want to raise money only have to go to 20 to 40 influential and very wealthy El Pasoans to get their campaigns paid,” she said. “They don’t have to woo thousands of people. All they have to do is get enough money to pay a shipper, paid canvassers, etc.
The petition includes three proposals:
- Proposal A would limit individual contributions to the campaign and require contributors to disclose where they work, which the city would be responsible for enforcing.
- Proposal B would establish a public fundraising program funded by city funds that candidates could tap into if they agreed to limit their campaign contributions and expenses.
- Proposal C would implement priority voting in which voters rank candidates by preference instead of selecting only their first choice.
If the clerk confirms that the signatures on the petition are from registered voters living within the city limits of El Paso, the petition will be submitted to the city council for approval. If the council votes to reject or change part of the petition, organizers will have to collect 11,000 signatures again – and resubmit them for validation – by August 22, the deadline to place a measure on the election ballot. General of November 8. .
El Pasoans last voted for a Citizens’ Proposal in 2019, when nearly 90% of voters who participated in May’s special election approved the preservation of 1,000 acres of Northwest land, including Lost Dog Trailhead. The city council initially rejected this petition by a vote of 5 to 2.
Proposed Proposal A: Campaign Contribution Limits
The petition would cap individual contributions at $1,000 and political action committee contributions at $5,000 for candidates for mayor and city representative. Candidates would not be allowed to spend more than $5,000 of their personal funds on their campaign. All contributors would be required to disclose their place of employment, which Texas only requires for state office donors.
Texas only has campaign contribution limits for state judicial candidates, but allows political subdivisions, such as the city of El Paso, to impose their own limits. El Paso has no limit on the amount of money municipal candidates can raise.
Not capping campaign contributions “discourages smart, hard-working candidates from running for office,” Carbajal said.
“People who are really ethical, who think, ‘if I have to sell myself to win, I don’t want to show up. … I don’t want to have to answer to these big donors. Also, I don’t want to have to lead an uphill battle with someone who is willing to sell out.
Although she raised the least money of the four competitive 2020 mayoral candidates — who together raised more than $943,000 — her campaign had the most individual contributors, a testimony she says of the work she has done to connect with voters.
“If you’re not on the sidewalk, if you’re not really doing the work and talking to voters, you won’t when you get elected,” she said.
Austin is a city in Texas that caps campaign contributions. A single person (including PACs) cannot donate more than $400 to each candidate for mayor and city council. Candidates cannot raise more than $38,000 from voters outside the Austin city limits.
Mayor Oscar Leeser voiced support for limiting campaign contributions when asked about the topic at a September 2020 mayoral candidates forum hosted by El Paso Matters. The mayor can only vote to break a tie, but has a right of veto.
“As a candidate and former elected official, I think we should have a cap and I would follow the rules depending on what is set by the government, so it’s important that we do that,” Leeser said.
Leeser raised more than $285,000 in that election, more than a quarter of which came from contributions of $1,000 or more.
Proposed Proposal B: Public Funding
Under El Pasoans’ proposal for a fair election, candidates for city representative could receive $20,000 in city funds and mayoral candidates $65,000 if they agree to raise no more than one year. certain amount. The aggregate limit for representatives would be $50,000 and $150,000 for the mayor. Public funding program funds would not be included in this total.
To qualify for public funding, candidates would need to collect the signatures of 1% of registered voters in their riding, or in the case of the mayor, 1% of registered voters in the city, to demonstrate that their campaigns are viable.
Austin has a limited public funding system for mayoral or council candidates who make it to a runoff. It’s a little-used approach, KUT reported, because many candidates don’t understand how it works or don’t want to voluntarily limit contributions if their opponent doesn’t do the same.
Albuquerque, New Mexico has had a public funding program for mayoral and city council candidates since 2007. In the 2021 municipal elections, every candidate who won relied on this funding.
Todd Curry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso, says that while public funding lowers financial barriers to entry, which can increase the pool of candidates, it also benefits the incumbent. It’s something he’s seen in other publicly funded state court elections.
“One of the only real ways to thwart an incumbent’s natural advantage is to campaign, which is tied to their spending,” Curry said.
Proposed Proposition C: Preferential Voting
Preferential voting would offset the cost of a public funding system, Carbajal said, because it would eliminate city spending on low-turnout elections, which are costly for both the city and the candidates who must continue. to campaign.
In 2020, the city of El Paso spent about $711,500 on the December 2020 runoff election, according to city spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta. This second round included six undecided municipal races, including the mayor and two representative districts of the city. Just 54,290 people voted for mayor in the run-off, a quarter of the general election turnout for that race.
In ranking voting, or “instant” voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one achieves a majority after the first-preference votes are counted, the person with the fewest number of first-preference votes is eliminated and their second-preference votes are redistributed among the other candidates. The process repeats until a candidate crosses the threshold of 50% plus one.
According to FairVote, a nonpartisan electoral reform organization, 25 U.S. jurisdictions use this method, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, New York, Santa Fe and Las Cruces.
Austin became the first city in Texas to approve ranked voting in May 2021, but has yet to implement it.
Austin’s legal team said it would be against state law, according to a 2001 opinion by then-Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar, who argued that preferential votes do not do not count for the “majority” of votes. The Texas election code states that candidates must receive. A later opinion from the Texas Attorney General in 2003 asserted that ranked voting is not permitted under state law.
Carbajal, however, notes that these opinions are not legally binding and that the legality of preferential voting has never been tested in Texas courts.
Preferential voting, she said, allows voters to “take a chance on someone who doesn’t have a lot of money behind them, who isn’t on TV 24/7 , but who (they) think is the best candidate, who will be the best official.”
That risk can benefit candidates, Curry said, but requires voters to find out more about the candidates on the ballot.
“I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing,” he said, “but that burden will be borne by the voters and it’s really up to the candidates themselves to close that gap.”