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Here's how different areas in Austin voted on reinstating the city's homeless camping ban

Philip Jankowski
Austin American-Statesman

The results of the Proposition B vote in Austin's May 1 election show a sharp east-west voter divide over whether a public camping ban aimed at the city's homeless population should be reinstated.

Precinct-by-precinct results indicated that supporters of Prop B carried all precincts west of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1). Meanwhile, large swaths of East Austin voted against Prop B.

The east-west divide in how voters cast ballots is nothing new to Austin — West Austinites tend to be less progressive than their East Austin counterparts. But passing Prop B required a bipartisan coalition.

The final results showed that in a city that favored Joe Biden over Donald Trump by a near 3-to-1 ratio in last November's presidential election, a large number of Democrats turned away from the party line. 

Related:As Austin's camping ban returns, those experiencing homelessness face an uncertain future

A homeless woman sleeps on the steps at Austin City Hall on Sunday May 9, 2021.

"Solid support from Democrat voters was a necessity to be successful," said Matt Mackowiak, the head of the Travis County Republican Party and an architect behind Prop B. Mackowiak said throughout the petition and election campaigns that bringing back the camping ban was a bipartisan issue.

However, in the lead-up to the election, Prop B took on elements of a partisan contest. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott chipped in $43,000 from his campaign war chest to support Prop B and repeatedly voiced his support for reinstating the camping ban. And a GOP-supported bill that would make the camping ban state law looks headed toward passage during this current session of the Legislature with little Democrat support.

Save Austin Now, the organization behind Prop B that Mackowiak co-founded with Democrat Cleo Petricek, found that about 41% of Democrats casting ballots in May's election voted in favor of reinstating the camping ban.

Prior to election day, the group sent out a poll to about 80,000 people who took part in early voting. The roughly 7,500 who responded indicated there was significant support from Democrats, as well as near-uniform support from voters identifying as Republican or independent.

"That's a winning coalition," Mackowiak said.

It was enough to give Prop B a healthy margin over voters casting ballots against reinstating the camping ban. The final results were 57% in favor and 43% against, with supporters topping those against by more than 21,000 votes.

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Among them was local attorney Brad Parro, a South Austin resident and a Democrat who said he welcomed the initial action from the Austin City Council in 2019 to repeal ordinances that banned public camping and sleeping in public and placed limitations on panhandling.

"Raising the visibility was unquestionably a step in the right direction," Parro said. "At the same time, though, I feel like we've kind of squandered the past two years."

Parro said he struggled with supporting Prop B because it does not provide any clear solution to homelessness. However, those concerns were outweighed by public health interests, he said. In the end he voted for Prop B, going against the Travis County Democrat Party's endorsement.

"There's absolutely a tension between my desire to help solve this problem and my desire to basically give voice to what I think are the legitimate public health interests that are being damaged by allowing unfettered camping in public spaces," Parro said.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at a Northwest Austin polling site on May 1. More voters turned out for the election than local political analysts were expecting.

Mackowiak said environmental concerns also likely played a role in dislodging some Democrats from their opposition to Prop B. The city of Austin's refusal to enforce already on the books camping bans in public parks because of COVID-19 guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also likely played a role, said local political consultant Mark Littlefield.

"I really think it was just more of a personal conclusion that people came to once they saw the consequences of the policy itself," Mackowiak said.

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On their face, the results resemble many off-year spring elections in Austin. Those typically low-turnout elections tend to favor candidates or propositions that find support among Austin's more diligent voters, who tend to be less progressive.

Saturday's total turnout of 22.55% of registered voters seem paltry when compared with the 71.06% that turned out for November's presidential election. But when compared with previous off-year elections, the turnout was high, with far more voters casting ballots than many involved in campaigns for and against Prop B had expected.

Littlefield said early analysis showed this election saw many voters who typically don't vote in May elections.

"Every once in a while, something comes up like the smoking ban election or that gets people motivated to get up off the couch and go vote," Littlefield said. "The camping ban was one of those emotional things that got people off the couch."