Saturday, January 28, 2023 Jan 28, 2023
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Local Government

Polling Hiccups, the Mayor’s Bad Bets, and More to Know From Dallas Elections

Three incumbents head to the runoff, the mayor's preferred candidates underperformed, and there were more places to vote than ever before. Let's talk about the election.
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At about 1 a.m. Sunday morning, we learned the results of a typically low-energy municipal election. Fewer than 10 percent of Dallas County voters cast their ballots, which is pretty close to what we saw in May 2019. Of course, the mayor wasn’t on the ballot this time, so maybe this is a small win. In 2018, the national rate for municipal elections was 27 percent, according to the New York Times. Dallas would probably kill for that.

The top-line results: three incumbents failed to get 50 percent of the vote and are heading to runoffs. Those include South Oak Cliff’s Carolyn King Arnold in District 4, who earned 46.56 percent against Dallas ISD Trustee Maxie Johnson. Councilman Adam Bazaldua, in South Dallas/Fair Park’s District 7, will face former Councilman Kevin Felder after logging 39.41 percent of the ballots cast. And Councilman David Blewett, who represents Uptown, downtown, and East Dallas in District 14, narrowly forced a runoff after nabbing 32.10 percent of the vote against former Plan Commissioner Paul Ridley, who finished with 45.65 percent.

Unexpectedly, the three open seats vacated by term-limited councilmembers also ended with runoffs. Former Park Board member Jesse Moreno (38.95 percent) will face former city spokeswoman Sana Syed (24.5 percent) in District 2, which includes Deep Ellum, the Cedars, and the Medical District. Former Plan Commissioner Jaynie Schultz got 36.22 percent to attorney Barry Wernick’s 38.08 percent in North Dallas’ District 11. And over in Preston Hollow, developer Leland Burk faces businesswoman Gay Donnell Willis, who were separated by a little over 100 votes.

Both propositions, which would have allowed Dallas residents who didn’t have American citizenship to serve on boards and commissions, failed mightily.

The mayor went bust. Big time. He publicly endorsed two candidates: former Park Board member Yolanda Williams in southeast Dallas’ District 5 and Rev. Donald Parish Jr. in District 7, Fair Park and South Dallas. Both finished in third. The incumbents he opposed either made the runoff (Adam Bazaldua, in D7) or won outright (Jaime Resendez, in D5.)

Williams got maximum $1,000 contributions from big name donors like the Deasons and the Sewells. G. Brint Ryan’s political action committee threw in the PAC max of $2,500. Williams raised a little over $44,000 but got just 404 votes. Parish fared a little better over in South Dallas, but he lost to Felder by about 24 votes and failed to make the runoff.

There were similar donor overlaps in Parish’s $51,000 haul. It didn’t matter. He earned 551 total votes. The mayor didn’t formally get involved in District 9 near White Rock Lake, but some of his donors gave to John Botefuhr. He also finished third, trounced by incumbent Paula Blackmon. The incumbents in those races used the mayor’s meddling—a rare occurrence in a municipal ­election—to raise beaucoup bucks. And they all at least made the runoff.

And now the mayor has to go back to work with the people he maligned. Sources say he has texted at least one of them, trying to smooth things over. But here’s what Resendez told the Morning News a few weeks back: “Eric Johnson is the most divisive and combative political figure in city politics in a generation.”

The fence that needs mending has a giant hole in it.

The ‘progressive’ challengers lost again. Hosanna Yemiru was a really interesting candidate in District 11, which was vacant after incumbent Lee Kleinman hit his term limits. Yemiru raised a whopping $84,800, putting her right up there with the top earners in any race. She said things like “Dallas wasn’t made to support people like me,” and urged the city to double down on rental assistance and other aid that would directly benefit working people. In her panels, she spoke of attracting support from renters and the working class.

I was curious whether this message, with the right money, could resonate. Yemiru fared better than others who shared a similar message but weren’t as well-funded—Jennifer Cortez in District 2 (390 votes) and Changa Higgins in District 7 (102 votes)—but still finished in third behind the more traditional candidates Schultz and Wernick.

Giovanni Valderas tried again to win North Oak Cliff’s District 1 seat but fell once more to the incumbent Chad West, who secured a win with 52 percent of the vote. Valderas ran on a platform against displacing longtime residents. He actually had fewer votes this year than he did in 2019, but he accounted for 5 percent more of the overall vote. (Nearly 2,000 fewer people voted in District 1 in 2021 compared to two years prior.)

It seems like the path to council victory is still through homeowners, but perhaps we’ll get a better sense of how effective the ground game will be when these candidates are operating in a world that isn’t shut in by a pandemic.

There were polling hiccups. On Saturday afternoon, the mayor sent out some panicked tweets about how some vote centers in South Dallas had been down for HOURS. (Emphasis his.) There was truth to that. The mayor called for hours to be extended “if necessary.” Michael Scarpello, the county’s election administrator, told me there had been some problems at six polling places as the morning got going. But extending the polls would have required intervention from a judge.

Three of the voting centers that had issues—Owenwood Farm & Neighbor Space, Park South YMCA, and Skyline High School—were in District 7. Scarpello told me those were down for about an hour, and voters were directed to the four nearest voting centers. That’s obviously a problem, but extending hours at those polls would have required a court order. For this election, there were more voting centers than during any other municipal election.

Meanwhile, for the first time, voters were not confined to their precinct on Election Day. You could live in South Oak Cliff and vote in Preston Hollow. In May 2019, Dallas County had 335 voting locations. In 2021, there were 432, “far, far more than any previous election of this type,” Scarpello told me. Because of that, Scarpello didn’t believe allegations of voter suppression would have stuck.

“You’d have to go to the courts to ask for” an extension, he said. “I would imagine they would say this is not like the old model where you had a precinct where you had to vote and if you weren’t able to vote we might consider opening it later. But because there are 432 locations, I can’t imagine that a court would be responsive to a request like that.”

In 2019, the Dallas County Commissioners Court switched to this new model. Scarpello says he basically had to operate this small “low-turnout election,” as he called it, as the county did the presidential election, when 66 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Again, this election attracted a little less than 10 percent of registered voters. So we got more voting centers, but more logistical headaches for the elections office.

“We’ve really struggled this election for poll workers. We have nearly 100 sites more than we’ve ever had for this type of election, and it’s a May election on a Saturday,” Scarpello said, adding that 156 election judges didn’t want to participate this year and that temp workers were hard to come by. “We’re just running short of labor everywhere.”

The county accurately predicted that about 65,000 would vote early and another 65,000 would vote on Election Day. “We would have much fewer locations if we could,” he said, which would have allowed the county to better use the resources it had. Instead, it ran into problems.

It wasn’t just South Dallas, either. A janitor at Booker T. Washington in the Arts District had to open the room where the machines were, which delayed its opening. Ronald McNair Elementary in southern Dallas had technical problems with the machines that stalled its opening. In all, there were six polling locations that didn’t start right at 7 a.m.

Owenwood needed cords to power up the machines. The county says everything was operational there at 8:15 a.m. At the YMCA, the county had to replace machines that weren’t operating. That was up by 10:45 a.m. Ronald McNair was active by 9:15 a.m. Booker T. was going by 9:30 a.m. At E.B. Comstock Middle School in southeast Dallas, poll workers needed extension cords or power strips to get the machines going. That was fixed by 10:30 a.m. And at Skyline High School, broken voting machines were replaced after being reported at 6:42 a.m.

Scarpello vowed for a complete review of the breakdowns, but the county did not have a total number of voters who tried to cast a ballot at one of the polling centers that were not operating.

“There are lots of options for people to go to other locations. I know it’s not convenient for people to do that … I apologize for any inconvenience they may have had. That’s certainly not our goal,” he said.

He also promised a more detailed audit of where the county will arrange voting centers in the future.

“We’ll say, ‘ok, we’ve used this model for two years, let’s analyze how many locations we should have open.” He wonders “whether the law is going to give us the ability to flex up and flex down.”

“If we can’t, that’s problematic with some of these smaller elections,” he said.

The county has work to do.

A final takeaway: All of the races with the highest turnout were north of Interstate 30. District 13, in Preston Hollow, had 9,603 votes. District 14, in downtown and Uptown and East Dallas, had 8,929. District 11, in North Dallas, had 7,977. Districts 9 and 10, in White Rock and Lake Highlands, had totals in the 6,000s.

Maybe that’s why the mayor got involved in southeast Dallas and near Fair Park. In District 7, Kevin Felder will make the runoff with fewer than 600 votes. District 5 was about 100 votes away from forcing a runoff; the incumbent Resendez pulled off 51.75 percent of the vote.

It’s the same story every year. Some of these races have such low turnout that deep-pocketed political insiders see an opportunity to affect the outcome. The only way that changes is if the candidates and the city do more to raise awareness for the importance of these elections. (Or just move these to November, when turnout is buttressed by statewide or national races.) Your city councilmember is probably the most impactful vote you can place: they’re the ones who are going to get your crosswalks painted. They decide public safety policy. They create initiatives that will impact every aspect of how we live in Dallas, Texas.

The real scandal? This is yet another year where the interest among registered voters amounted to crumbs.

Many of you still have one more chance to cast a ballot: the runoffs will be on June 5.

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