The Impact of San Antonio's Term Limit
on Political Participation Over Time
Arturo Vega, Ph.D.
In 1990, San Antonio voters approved a referendum to limit City Council and mayoral tenure to two, two-year terms during the elected official's lifetime. In all, the maximum time a politician elected to City Hall can serve is a total of eight years (four years as a council member and four as mayor). Some argue that this referendum represents one of the most severe term limits in the nation. Others argue that these term limits "reformed" City Hall by replacing career politicians with civic minded, part-time representatives, who participate as public servants out of civic duty. But what is the effect of these term limits on political participation, specifically voter registration rates, voter turnout and political efficacy in San Antonio?
Data and Methods
Examining voter registration data from the Texas Secretary of State's office, city election returns and survey data collected over time allow for an assessment of the impact of San Antonio's term limits on political participation. The Secretary of State's Office has collected voter registration rates, including Spanish surname registration rates, for Bexar County at the precinct level since 1985. City election returns were obtained from the San Antonio City Clerk's Office. Finally, survey data come from the University of Texas at San Antonio's (UTSA) annual San Antonio Surveys.2
Examining voter registration rates in Bexar County (the City of San Antonio resides wholly within this county) provides an important starting point in understanding political participation changes in the county over time (see Figure 1). In 1991, for example, over 516,000 people in the county were registered to vote. Thirty-seven percent of that number or slightly over 170,000 registered voters were Spanish surnamed. By 2000, the number of voters registered had increased to over 834 thousand and, while the overall number and proportion of Spanish surnamed registered voters has nearly doubled, Spanish surnamed registrants still represent approximately one-third of all registered voters (see Figure 2).
While Mexican Americans in San Antonio represent now represent fifty-eight (58.2) percent of the population, the consistent pattern of Spanish surname registered voters highlights an ethnic population that is younger, less formally educated, poorer overall than the general population. These factors are traditionally cited as responsible for depressing turnout figures in comparison to actual voter registration. In addition, a large percent of the Mexican American population in Bexar County may not be eligible to register to vote because of immigration or naturalization status.
One of the most immediate results of term limits has been a declining voter participation in municipal elections. While the number of registered voters in the county has actually increased since 1991, the actual number of voters participating in city elections has declined (see Figures 3 and 4). In the decade of the eighties, for example, voter participation averaged twenty-eight percent with a high of forty-three percent turnout in 1981 and a low of eighteen percent in 1989. The first year that Henry Cisneros was elected mayor in an open and contested election, 1981, saw a voter turnout rate that approximated those for congressional and state-level elections. Since 1991, voter turnout in city elections has averaged nineteen percent, with a high in 1991 of thirty-two percent voting and an all time low in 1999 with seven percent of the registered voters turning out to vote. The 1991 city elections was also the last election in which an incumbent Latina city council member competed against six other candidates in an open election for mayor. Moreover, the competitive nature of the election along with the open seat created an electoral context where political mobilization played a crucial role in the outcome.
The percentage difference (-8.0%) in voter turnout in mayoral elections between the 1980s and the 1990s is statistically significant (prob<.10) and is one signal of the dampening effect of the 1991 term limit reform.
Figure 5 graphically presents city election turnout by council district since 1989. Again, the same decrease in voter participation is found in each council district over time. Notably and with few exceptions, the more affluent, predominately Anglo, outer-loop city council districts exceed the voter participation of the poorer, predominately Mexican American and African American, inner-city council districts.
Measures of political efficacy in Bexar County demonstrate steady increases since 1990. In the 1991 San Antonio Survey, for example, when respondents were asked to either "agree" or "disagree" with the following statement: "Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on" " three-fourths either "agreed" or "strongly agreed." By 2000, slightly less than half (47.9%) of the respondents expressed a similar perspective. On average, during the 1990s, about sixty percent (59.8%) of the respondents said they found "politics seem so complicated."
Examining political efficacy by ethnicity reveals statistically significant but weak associated differences among the three major groups in four of six surveys since 1991 (see Figure 6). African American respondents to the San Antonio Surveys exhibited the least efficacy since 1991 averaging a sixty-eight percent (68.3%) agreement with the statement that at times times "politics and government seem so complicatedů." Mexican Americans, on average, exhibited slightly over two-thirds (66.4%) agreement and, on average, a majority of the Anglo respondents (53.7%) also expressed agreement with the view. While the efficacy of the Anglo respondents, as measured by this statement, increased by over twenty-five percent since 1997, the efficacy of African Americans decreased by five percent since 1998 and by ten percent for Mexican Americans.
Finally since term limits have been implemented, three San Antonio city council members (Juan Solis, Rick Vasquez and Jose Melendez) have resigned their positions on the council before their second term had expired. These incidences suggest one unanticipated consequence of city council term limits. As members near the ends of their terms and other opportunities arise, council members may also exhibit less attentive behaviors to council responsibilities and more attention to the next phase of their careers.
The implementation of city council term limits in San Antonio since 1991 is clearly associated with lower voter participation in municipal elections turnout. Lower voter participation rates are particularly evident in inner city council districts, while council districts 8, 9 and 10 voters participate in high numbers. In addition, over the period examined, voter registration rates have increased while Spanish surname rates have remained relatively consistent. Overall levels of political efficacy have increased but rates for Mexican Americans and African Americans remain low relative to Anglos. Finally, some members of council have resigned from office to pursue other private and public sector interests rather than complete terms.
The relative competitive nature of city council and mayoral elections in the 1980s called for a greater mobilization of voter effort ("get out the vote" campaigns) and, as a result, seem to have produced a higher turnout rate. With terms limits, municipal elections in the City of San Antonio have witnessed fewer intensive voter mobilization efforts and subsequently lower turnout. Less competitive elections are also associated with less interest, lower levels of participation and lack of political efficacy.