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San Marcos city officials weigh in on voter turnout problem: nobody cares, or nobody knows?

Election Day 2021 resulted in a shift in the balance of the San Marcos City Council. Melissa Derrick, former left-leaning councilmember, stepped down from her position and was replaced with conservative candidate Jude Prather, causing the council to now sit at a 4-3 conservative majority. 

The race that determined the new balance of the council, Prather against left-leaning (or pro-environment) Mark Rockeymoore, was won by a very small margin. This is not an uncommon occurrence in City Council elections, says Place 1 City Councilmember Maxfield Baker.

“[Rockeymoore] lost by the same margin that I won in 2019, by like 30-ish votes,” Baker said.

Hays County election results, found on the county government’s webpage, show a stark difference in voter turnout between 2020 and 2021. Precincts with the highest turnout in 2020, including downtown and student-housing areas of San Marcos, were eclipsed by precincts with lower populations and higher concentrations of conservative voters in 2021.

The following visuals represent the top five precincts with the highest turnouts in 2021 paired with their respective 2020 turnout results. Both races feature Mark Rockeymoore as the pro-environment candidate and a conservative (or pro-development) candidate. Both races feature small margins of victory for pro-development councilmembers Shane Scott and Prather, but the makeup of each race’s voters show stark differences.

Baker says that a large voter base for pro-environment candidates consists of the Texas State student population, but that the group of young voters are not guaranteed to show up to polling stations due to converging interests. He says students that don’t primarily live in town or often visit their parents out of town may be under the impression that local government does not have an effect on them— which he insists is false.

“There was a much smaller turnout from the university [in 2021],” Baker said. “Because frankly, without Democrats on the ticket telling them to vote down ballot, they’re sort of focused on, you know, school and stuff like that.”

Mark Gleason, pro-development city councilmember for place 5 and longtime member of the San Marcos city government, argues that lower turnout in 2021 shows a lack of awareness of how complex the local government is and how it impacts the average citizen.

“For us local candidates, you know, a lot of people pay attention to the national media, maybe even what’s going on on regional efforts, when state reps are there, what their congressman is up to, you know, they get media attention,” Gleason said. “A lot of people really don’t understand how municipal government works.”

Multiple commissions and boards exist within the San Marcos local government and have members that are either voted for or picked by city councilmembers. Some of these include the Planning and Zoning committee, the Neighborhood commission, the library board, the cemetery board and the Historic Preservation commission, or HPC.

Appointed members of these commissions are not chosen randomly: HPC, for example, must consist of seven San Marcos citizens from different historic areas in the city. Many of these commissions also hold public meetings that feature citizen comment periods where locals can voice their stance on any agenda items up for discussion. Agendas and meeting times can be viewed on the city’s webpage.

Gleason says these opportunities exist for San Marcos citizens to become more engaged with city activities, especially when decisions from groups like HPC can affect the landscape of one’s neighborhood. 

Learn more about the Historical Preservation commission here:

Place 3 councilmember Alyssa Garza is a pro-environment member of the council, though she doesn’t believe the label to be particularly important. 

Since local government practices in San Marcos lack clear partisanship— a dedicated “Republican” and “Democrat” party to run under— some city councilmembers have adopted the terms pro-environment and pro-development as catch-all labels for left-leaning and conservative-leaning candidates based on the popular issues that either side predominately represents.

While Garza is indeed a left-leaning and pro-environment councilmember, she believes this form of discussion pushes voters away. She says that the average San Marcos citizen doesn’t care about the broad labels; she says all they care about is seeing their values reflected in the city government’s actions rather than titles.

“There’s been a clear lack of genuine get-out-the-vote engagement in all realms, like whether that’s the city, the county, the state or even local, partisan and nonpartisan groups,” Garza said. “I think generally speaking, not until recently, and even then it hasn’t been effective in reaching these smaller elections. There hasn’t been genuine engagement with actually explaining to the community the importance of city council.”

Listen to further discussion from Garza and Baker on the 2021 election turnout here:

https://soundcloud.com/user-552366156/councilmembers-discuss-2021-election?si=df17b15d53e44e099ed6b5b73850b674

Gleason, a councilmember who ran on opposing views to Garza, says that partisanship is a falsely monolithic practice that has no place in local government. 

“There are times where I have stood with things that people, you know… If you put a label on [me], you know, people would go, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you stand for that!’ It just puts a separation between all of us,” he said.

In regards to low voter turnout, Garza says fewer people casting ballots has a negative effect on all sides of the political spectrum.

“I would feel more comfortable saying that we’re a truly democratic and representative entity if there was a higher voter turnout,” Garza said.

If Garza were to run for reelection, it would be in 2023, another off-year like 2021 where no major nationwide election cycles are taking place. This election could fall into the cycle of small turnouts, putting Garza’s chances in the hands of the few people that choose to vote. 

Ultimately, the makeup of the San Marcos local government is constantly in motion due to a variety of factors, but a voter that is knowledgeable about local government candidates and proceedings can be part of the change they wish to see in their city.

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