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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

School District Considers Shifting Elections to Even Years

In light of the very low turnout of the 2007 off-year elections, there were a number of proposals to both increase voter turnout and save money. One idea that Freddie Oakley put out there was to go to either a heavily mail-in election, where there would only be a very small number of polling stations available and the majority of voters would simply mail-in their ballots.

While this was not a bad idea, the idea that I favored is one that I had seen areas like San Luis Obispo go to, which was to consolidate all of their elections onto the even year.

There are of course both positives and negatives to that. On the one hand, you are assured of having a reasonable turnout. On the other hand, it is possible that school board elections and other lower ballot races would get lost in the mad shuffle of Presidential, Senatorial, Congressional, Gubernatorial, and other large elections. This is of course a risk, but then again only a small number of people pay attention to the school board elections during the odd-year anyway.

The key is that this would be a way for the school district and the county to save money. And the cost factor is considerable. According to Freddie Oakley, off-year elections cost between $200,000 and $300,000. This is due to the small number of races across very few jurisdictions. However, if the school district were to hold its elections during the general, that cost would be shared, and the cost to the school district would be $60,000 to $80,000. Savings of a substantial amount of money in dry years.

Cost is perhaps not the only consideration here however. The turnout two weeks ago was a staggering 79.5% compared to the paltry 32.8% in 2007.

Unspoken in this consideration is that the district often chosen these off-year elections with low turnout for the parcel taxes, believing that the people who turned out would be more inclined to support schools since they were likely people who had a stake in schools having turned out for an election almost exclusively for the school board. However, the overwhelming success of Measure W may (stress on the may since this is all speculation) have changed that calculus. The community as a whole seems very supportive of education and educational funding.

To me this makes perfect sense and was actually the approach I advocated over a year ago. Put the elections together and make decisions when the majority of the people vote rather than 67.2% of the electorate stay home.

Now there is one downside or it could be an upside depending on how you view the current school board. If the board makes this change, it would mean they stay on for another year. This happened in San Luis Obispo as well. However, in San Luis Obispo the issue was put on the ballot. In fact, I believe it was the first election I ever voted in. There are bound to be some questions about extending their own terms by a year. But I hope the public looks past that and views it as a way to save between $120,000 or even $220,000 of taxpayer money and increase voter participation in very important school board elections. In other words, I think this is the right thing to do from both a fiscal standpoint and a democratic participation standpoint.

If you have questions for the school district, click here to participate in our virtual townhall meeting set for December 2, 2008.

---David M. Greenwald reporting