Skool Bored Elekshon

Image Source: Green Lane (GFDL) via Wikimedia CommonsImage Source: Green Lane (GFDL) via Wikimedia CommonsDid anybody catch the misspellings in the title? Perhaps it doesn't matter - apparently, very few people give a crap about our schools. Yet again, Des Moines residents exhibited a staggeringly low turnout for the school board elections last Tuesday.

Okay, maybe I am being a bit harsh. Low voter turnout is a complex issue and there is plenty of blame to go around: the Polk County Auditor, State election law, candidates themselves, lack of coverage by media sources, voter apathy.... I mean, I barely even knew there was an election and I enjoy following politics. Thankfully, former school board member Graham Gillette filed a spot-on commentary with the Cityview education desk.

Only 5 percent of Des Moines voters thought participating in yesterday's school board elections was worthy of their time.

So, it is fair to say the 111,831 voters who did not vote:

1. Had something more important to do/didn't care;

2. Didn't have any idea there was an election going on, which is possible since the five people running raised a whopping combined total of $4,763 or about 4 cents per registered voter to communicate with the electorate. One candidate didn't raise a dime. (Looks like the candidates weren't too concerned about the election themselves.);

3. Thought the candidates were so indistinguishable from one another that voting was a waste of time;

4. Meant to, but the line at Burger King was so long that if they would have stopped to vote they would have missed the first five minutes of that Brady Bunch rerun; or

5. Decided to leave it to somebody smarter to decide who should serve.

The real nugget of a great idea in his column was this: what if school board elections were held in conjunction with odd-year city council elections? In addition to saving money, this would have the effect of tapping into the predictably larger turnouts and encouraging better communication between elected officials.

Boom. Problem solved.


Does is it really solve the problem?

The problem is people not being engaged on the issues and the candidates. Simply throwing the school board election in with the general election won't cause individuals to educate themselves on the school board candidates. Will it?

IMO, one potentially harmful result is you'll simply have voters cherry picking school board candidates (like the do now for things like "county conservation board") at the ballot box just to complete their ballot. In other words, increasing the percentage of people who vote to simply increase the percentage, isn't really a helpful means to and end if the increased voters don't have any engagement as to who/what they are voting for.

To me, the real question is, how do we get more people educated on the importance of the school board and involved in the process of voting? I guess you could argue that simply including it as part of the general election would do that, but I'm not sure that is the fix. IMO, people are barely taking the time and effort to get down to learning about the candidates for their district for the Iowa House/Senate. Are they going to really now be taking on the next step and look at school board members too? Maybe, maybe not, and if not, then (as I mentioned above), we'd be making this a bigger problem.

Chris Borey | Sep 22nd, 2011 at 8:43 am

Chris, thanks for reading and commenting. You bring up some valid points. I think I agree that combining the elections won't in and of itself create more engaged voters - the reasons voter turnout is so low are well beyond "scheduling conflict" and probably too complex for me to understand.

I do think that simply increasing the raw numbers is a big part of the solution, and perhaps the right way to break the cycle. I posit that children who see their parents vote are more likely to vote themselves. My children will grow up knowing how and where to vote because they go with me almost every time. It will not be a "mysterious" process to them. Granted, I also work hard to instill in them they belief that it is an important responsibility, but the simple act of being there does help.

It is more disturbing to me that people don't than the possibility that they may cast unconsidered votes. The act of getting to one's polling place is itself an act of engagement. Assuming the information were readily available (another big "if"), then it's a pretty easy jump for a voter to pick up a newspaper or do a Google search.

Having more voters will force candidates to work harder. A school board candidate, based on this election, could have won a seat by getting 3,334 votes. If it took 20,000 votes to win a seat, the candidate would have to work harder to get his or her message out across a more diverse electorate.

DMPerspective | Sep 22nd, 2011 at 1:41 pm
Julia in West Des Moines | Sep 28th, 2011 at 9:38 am

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