The cost of freedom numerous elECTIONS carry heavy price for bexar county taxpayers

by Ryan Loyd, Digital Reporter

SAN ANTONIO -- When State Sen. Ruth Jones McClendon announced she'd be stepping down from her seat of nearly 20 years, nothing seemed out of place.

Since her health had been declining for several years, McClendon, a veteran lawmaker and beloved member of the Democratic delegation in the House, decided to focus on taking care of herself.

During the March 1 primaries, two top vote-getting candidates emerged from a field of six: Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, sister of NBA Hall of Famer George Gervin and co-founder of the George Gervin Youth Center, Inc. in San Antonio; and Mario Salas, an activist from San Antonio's east side.

The election, and subsequent runoff between Gervin-Hawkins and Salas on May 24 because neither captured a majority of the vote, is to fill McClendon's regular two-year term starting in January.

But voters from House District 120 also voted in another election May 7, to decide who will sit in McClendon's former seat until the end of the year in what's called an unexpired term (since McClendon left her seat early). The four candidates in the running were narrowed down to two: Laura Thompson and Lou Miller. They will head to a runoff election this summer.

Lou Miller and Laura Thompson will head to a runoff this summer to fill McClendon's unexpired term until the end of the year. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins and Mario Salas will face each other in a runoff election May 24 for a two-year term in House District 120.

It's redundant and needs to be changed, according to Bexar County commissioner Paul Elizondo.

“It’s gotten out of hand and it’s been out of hand for a while - with all of these special runoff elections that are required by some antiquated state statutes and the commissioners court can’t change that because we operate under state law," Elizondo said.

He said he and the rest of the commissioners would like to ask the delegation of state lawmakers from Bexar County to head to Austin and change election law, which currently requires 50 percent plus one vote, or a majority, to declare a candidate the winner of an election.

The 85th Texas Legislature convenes on Jan. 10, 2017

He would like to see plurality, a candidate who captures most of the votes, declare winners in some of the elections that don't have lasting impact, like McClendon's unexpired term. It would have helped avoid this "musical chair" situation of a special election that's now going to a runoff. Even an appointment in some cases would work, he added.

“With all these special election runoffs that are being called, the local taxpayers are having to pay for those elections," Elizondo said. "The state just requires us to hold them, then they’re requiring us, the county, to pay for them.”

And that's not cheap.

Each election costs taxpayers about $110,000. While a normal year sees three to five elections, Bexar County Elections administrator Jacque Callanen said last year there were a total of 14 elections. That totaled more than $1 million in election costs - passed down to taxpayers because it's an unfunded mandate by the state.

It costs money and adds to the confusion for voters.

“So within two weeks of each other, (voters are) getting notices and having the ability to vote for two separate sets of people for two pieces of the same office," Callanen said. "So I don’t remember us having it quite like that before.”

State Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio

Every election costs money, said State Sen. Jose Menendez, a former member of the House of Representatives who now holds the seat vacated by former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte.

Menendez also won his seat by way of special and runoff elections against his Democratic colleague, former Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer.

“I wish we could reduce the number of special elections because it creates confusion, it creates voter fatigue," he said. "Many times, the voters have so many people trying to get them out to vote that they’re confused. They’re like, ‘I just voted.’ If we could have more of these elections on regular election times, if we could reduce the number of special elections, it would also be fiscally prudent and positive for the taxpayer.”

In the case of the House District 120 seat, Menendez questioned whether a special election actually served any purpose and said officials owe it to voters and taxpayers to be responsible with their money and elections.

The issue crosses the aisle, too.

Republican Bexar County commissioner Kevin Wolff, had the same concerns.

Bexar County Commissioners (L to R) "Chico" Rodriguez, Paul Elizondo, Judge Nelson Wolff, Tommy Calvert, and Kevin Wolff

"I think it's ridiculous that we have so many elections. Add on top of this the sheer number of elected positions and propositions we're asked to vote on only adds to the confusion and, in my belief, apathy toward the voting process as a whole," he said.

As a member of the Texas House in the late 1970s, Elizondo helped pass election-reform laws himself. One of his favorite was holding all elections that are non-partisan (like city council) on the same day. He hopes this idea works, too.

“We’re going to present to the Legislature, with the help of Sen. Menendez hopefully, an option to either let the plurality rule be the rule of the day here - that if there’s a special election and there’s a runoff, if no one gets a majority, over 51 percent of the votes, then the plurality should be in place to give that person the office for the temporary period,” Elizondo said.

If nothing else, the high number of elections may be the price that's paid for freedom.

"There's nothing better," Callanen said.

A special exhibit at the Bexar County Elections office:

The new Bexar County Elections office, located at 1103 S. Frio, features a historical look at elections in Bexar County and the state. The exhibit that lines the walls is open for anyone to see.

This one depicts people supporting John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and the right for women to vote.

Interesting faces in the crowd during a political rally.

These photos from the UTSA Libraries Special Collection show people supporting a poll tax.

An iconic war-time face, Rosie the Riveter.

The display features a section on campaigns in Bexar County.

Supporters show up for a John F. Kennedy rally.

President John F. Kennedy in San Antonio the day before he was assassinated in Dallas.

Statistics on voting in Bexar County.

Different forms of technology used for voting throughout the years. The elections office also has an old voting booth from the 1980s in its lobby.

JFK in front of the Alamo.

Women take part in campaigns.

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Ryan Loyd
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