When the Kent Intermediate School District (Kent ISD) proposed a special countywide election to raise $16.5 million for special education, Jeff Steinport, treasurer of the board of Grand Rapids Public Schools, voted no. His reason? The proposed ballot date did not occur on any regular or general election date. Such irregular election dates are sometimes referred to as “stealth elections,” because choosing an obscure date for the vote appears designed to elicit a low turnout. The school district knows that the few who do turn out for a millage or bond election held on an odd day are more likely to have a personal financial interest in approving a tax hike, thereby skewing the results in an undemocratic manner.
An infamous example of a stealth election was the “bait-and-switch” Oakland ISD special election in September 2001. This one also called for “special education” funding. But part of the new tax was diverted to build a gold-plated $30 million headquarters for the hundreds of ISD bureaucrats. That new tax was approved by a vote in which only 8 percent of the electorate participated.
Fortunately for Michiganians, such stealth elections may soon become a thing of the past. If signed into law, a package of bills that have passed in both the House and Senate in slightly different versions would mean that every election in Michigan would take place on one of four days each year, with some very narrow exceptions. Those dates are the last Tuesday in February; and the Tuesdays after the first Mondays in May; August; and November. The bills apply to all state, local, and school elections, including millage and bond votes. Schools would also be allowed one special Tuesday “floater” election each year, as long as it is not within 35 days of the four regular election days. Holding a “floater” would require a petition signed by 10 percent of the number of district voters who voted in the most previous governor's race, or 3,000 signatures, whichever is less. The bills do not apply to special elections to fill legislative vacancies.
While school millage votes held on irregular dates are not as frequent as they were before the passage of Proposal A in 1994 — which prohibited local millage votes to enhance the school operating expenses that now come from the state — the tactic is still commonplace for other types of tax increase or bond votes. According to a bill analysis prepared by the non-partisan House Legislative Analysis Section, there were 30 such millage elections in 1999 and 34 in 2001. The analysis notes that “sometimes special elections are held within weeks of a regularly scheduled election.”
The new bills would also get the schools out of the election business. Local and county clerks would run all elections. Eliminating two parallel election systems means there will be one set of polling places, absentee ballot procedures, and other election details, making it much less confusing for citizens. The days of June school board elections in which turnouts of fewer than 5 percent are common may be over.
Some school leaders are voicing objections. Alan Miller, business manager of Eaton Rapids Public Schools claims that election consolidation may cost voters more money and that it may make the election process more difficult by forcing schools to coordinate their elections with multiple county clerks. Eaton Rapids Public Schools is preparing to ask taxpayers for $33 million in a special election next year on an odd election date.
There are likely to be some transition costs and headaches associated with the new law, but most agree that fewer actual elections will save tax dollars and increase democratic participation. Plus, compared to the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollar levies authorized through stealth elections, any transition costs are likely to be minuscule.
The proposed law will help bring some much-needed integrity to the millage approval process. “Odd election dates are underhanded and show a certain level of indifference toward voters,” says Jeff Steinport. His integrity on the Grand Rapids Public Schools board was applauded by the Grand Rapids Press, which dubbed his stance “the Steinport principle.” It looks like all Michigan millage elections may soon be operating according to that principle.
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Brian Carpenter is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.