Secret Ballot?

(Note: Hundreds of school board elections will be held statewide May 8. This piece, which originally ran May 22, 2006, examines why school elections are so costly and attract so little voter participation. At a time when many are alleging a school funding crisis exists, board of education members still refuse to shift their elections to the fall and save millions of dollars they claim to need.)

Did you vote in your local school board election May 2? Probably not. Did you even know there was an election? Not likely. Was the inconvenience of a May election intentional? Maybe.

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For several years, people complained that school board elections held in June suppressed voter turnout. The last thing most people are thinking about during the second week in June is voting. Most are too busy mowing the lawn, running children to soccer practice or heading out of town on a much-anticipated vacation.

To address this concern, on Jan. 1, 2005, a new election law went into effect, consolidating election dates to four times per year: the August primary, the November general election, the fourth Tuesday in February and the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May. Why the May date was included is unclear, although speculation at the time indicated it was a compromise that guaranteed passage.

Did the change increase turnout? It did, by a whopping 63 percent the first time around. A May 2005 press release from Secretary of State Terry Land touted the increased voter turnout, comparing the June 2004 school board elections to the May 2005 turnout of 717,000 voters. But even with a 63 percent increase, that number represents only about 9.5 percent of all registered voters.

For this year’s election, the Secretary of State’s office did not compile statewide numbers. Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for Land, said the 2005 numbers were compiled only because it was the first year using a May election date.

A review of various Michigan daily newspapers, however, indicates a May 2 turnout of between 8 and 20 percent, depending on the county. Districts with contested school board races or expensive millage votes tended to have higher turnout, while many uncontested races drew scant interest. At one precinct in Midland County, for example, not a single ballot was cast during the 13 hours that polls were open.

Compare that to the November 2002 general election (the last non-presidential year), when about 3.2 million Michiganians cast ballots, representing 43.5 percent of registered voters. There’s no reason to expect turnout to be lower this November, and turnout is even higher in presidential election years, edging just over 64 percent in Michigan in 2004.

When the election consolidation law was being debated in the Legislature, opponents said such matters were issues of local control that should be left to local decision makers. But when decisions are made that reduce voter participation, either intentionally or not, the idea of local control loses some of its mystique. Rather than choose the more common August or November dates, almost every Michigan school board with an election this year chose May.

This decision is irresponsible not only because it reduces voter turnout but also significantly raises the cost to school districts and taxpayers.

Mackinac Center for Public Policy analysis has detailed the enormous number of local units of government in Michigan and why election consolidation makes sense, as well as a few examples of "stealth" elections wherein very few people turned out to approve very expensive ballot measures. But if public schools continue to insist they are "underfunded," it must be pointed out that many of them opt to conduct elections that force them to bear the full and unnecessary cost.

Following this month’s election, Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson was so disappointed by voter turnout — just under 9 percent in her suburban Detroit community — that she issued a press release decrying the fact that so many schools chose the May option. Johnson said taxpayers could have been spared a $600,000 expenditure in her county had schools made the fiscally responsible choice of a November election. She also estimated that November elections would have saved schools $5 million statewide.

"How many books will that buy? How many teachers will that hire?" Johnson asked in her press release. "It’s not responsible for schools to spend money on unnecessary, stand-alone elections."

Piggybacking school elections onto a general election would accomplish the same democratic task as a May or June vote — electing a school board — without putting undue stress on school budgets.

"I know of no other government entity that holds elections every year," Johnson said in her press release. "Piggybacked elections are a win-win for everybody. The schools can cut their costs without impacting the teachers or children."

Farther north, Grand Traverse County Clerk Linda Coburn told the Traverse City Record-Eagle in April that a school election held in conjunction with the November general election would cost the Traverse City Area Public Schools about $350, compared to the $48,000 the district spent for a stand-alone election in May 2005.

House Bill 4755, sponsored by Rep. Chris Ward, R-Brighton, would require all school elections to be held in November. First introduced on May 10, 2005, the bill passed the House by a vote of 61-45 on, ironically, May 3 of this year, just one day after another round of low voter turnout in costly school elections. The bill is now before the Senate Committee on Government Operations.

HB 4755 would preserve some local control by allowing school board members to adopt a resolution choosing one of three election options: the November general election date in both even and odd years; the general November election date in even years; or the odd-year general November election date.

Concerned taxpayers, teachers, parents and the school administrators who continually assert that public schools need more money should take note of HB 4755. As any civics teacher should tell you, increasing voter participation while cutting wasteful government spending is a good thing.


Ted P. O’Neil is an education research associate with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.