Oh, by the way, if you live in Texas but outside the city limits of Houston, this isn't really for you. You can still vote on the seven constitutional amendments offered for your approval or rejection this year, if you can stay awake long enough to read the ballot language.
It makes me squirm when people talk about Houston's elections in partisan terms. "Any Greens running for mayor this year?" Guh. City elections in Texas, by law, are nonpartisan. Yes, we know which candidates hang out with Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Independents, or Barflies. I'm a fan of nonpartisan races for local government: City elections are about who can fill the potholes most cost-effectively, not about party labels and grandstanding. It allows a mayoral candidate like Steve Costello to position himself as a fiscal conservative and social progressive, rather than a captive of Republican Orthodoxy.
Some candidates unflinchingly tell you their affiliations—like Eric Dick, "Republican for City Council" last year. It's no big secret that Mayor Annise Parker is a Democrat, as were the previous five mayors (yep, even Bob Lanier, an old-school Texas Tory Democrat).
Party labels may help us identify candidates who think more like us, but dude, just try to find a Republican in Council District B whom anyone gives a snowball's chance in Houston to win that seat.
In order to vote in the 2015 election, you must be officially registered at least 30 days before Election Day. This page tells you how. If you cannot download and print an application, get one from your nearest County Court Annex or Department of Public Safety (DPS) location.
Whom Are We Electing?
We elect our mayor, controller, and city councilmembers every odd-numbered year as do many cities and towns in Texas. Since there are no statewide or national elections in odd-numbered years, nobody seems to notice that an election is happening. There are lots of campaign signs out, but it's easy to assume that they are leftovers that nobody ever got around to taking down after last year's election.
This fall, you may also have a chance to vote in a school board election, depending on which zone of which school district you inhabit. Houston Independent School District has four of its nine seats on the Board up for election. District IV incumbent Paula Harris did not file for re-election, so four candidates have lined up to take it over. These elections are also nonpartisan, unlike the intensely partisan State Board of Education.
Remember that not all of Houston is in HISD, and not all of HISD is in Houston. Our city contains portions of about a dozen school districts, but most of it is within HISD's borders.
There are also elections for the Board of Trustees for the Houston Community College System, along with other community colleges like Lone Star and San Jacinto.
When and Where Do We Vote?
The official Election Day for 2015 is Tuesday, 3 November. This follows an old federal law setting Election Day as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November; this keeps us from voting on 1 November, because nobody wants to (or should) vote with a Halloween hangover. Most large cities adhere to this tradition, although smaller cities may hold their elections at other times of year, like in May, when only retirees are paying attention.
If you vote on Election Day, you must vote between 7 am and 7 pm at the polling location in your assigned precinct. If you don't know where that is, go here and click Polling Locations List. It helps if you have your voter registration card so you can look up your precinct number. Harris County has more than a thousand precincts, about half of which are in the City of Houston.
Early voting begins Monday, 19 October, and runs on a weird schedule:
- 19-23 October, 8 am to 4:30 pm
- 24 October, 7 am to 7 pm
- 25 October, 1 to 6 pm
- 26-30 October 7 am to 7 pm
- 1-2 November you're SOL
Since the 1990s, elected city officials are limited to three two-year terms in any particular office. Annise Parker, who earned her political wings with a citizens' group called the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, has now served six years each as a councilmember, controller, and mayor. The Caucus is set to retire Parker's jersey number next year.
There may also be referenda on the ballot: you know, those yes-or-no questions that give the voters a chance to determine how their tax money is spent or whether the city should have certain laws. These referenda will be the subject of a later post.
In Houston, the big question this year Proposition 1, asks whether Houston should have a municipal ordinance banning discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations (in particular, the law that City Council already passed but certain aggrieved parties took to court and forced onto this November's ballot). Guess which way I'm voting on that one.
There is also a measure on this year's ballot to increase city government terms to four years, like a proper major city, and limit officials to two four-year terms.
But Wait! There's More!
As if we had nothing more interesting to think about, our State Legislature also has put seven compelling Constitutional issues up for vote.
Our Elected Officials
In Houston's strong-mayor form of municipal government, the mayor is first among equals on City Council, but also has the power of issuing executive orders. She or he must also possess some madd ribbon-cuttin' skillz.
If the mayor is the city's CEO, the controller is the CFO. Anything to do with money goes through the Controller's Office. If City Council proposes spending that result in an unbalanced budget, the controller gets to step in and tell them "nuh-uh."
Houston is divided into 11 single-member districts of approximately equal population, A through K. Each district is entitled to elect its own councilmember. There are also five seats on the City Council for members elected by the entire city (or rather, the 20% of registered voters who actually vote). The Council then elects one of its own as Mayor Pro Tempore for Council meetings when the mayor cannot be present.
At-large representation is a fairly common practice in Texas, where many cities still have all at-large councils. (Austin just adopted council districts in 2014.)
This paragraph is optional, but it helps to understand why we have what we have. During the Progressive Era, federal legislation tried to put the kibosh on "ward heelers," i.e. councilmembers who used city funds to spiff up their own districts and skim off a percentage for their own businesses. Thus was born at-large representation. About 80 years later, the federal government noticed that this made it easy to elect all-white councils in cities with a white-majority population. In the 1970s, the Justice Department forced Houston to adopt a hybrid-form council, with nine single-member districts and five at-large seats. The number of districts would grow as Houston's population grew: After we passed 2,000,000 by the 2010 census, we added two districts for the 2011 election.
As you might imagine, Council districts are drawn not only to baffle voters and alienate geography geeks, but also to optimize an ethnic mix on Council:
- Districts B, D, and K are heavily African American.
- Districts H and I are heavily Latino.
- District F is home to a large number of Asian Americans.
- Districts E and G are drawn to almost guarantee that suburban conservatives get elected in this otherwise moderately liberal city.