Legislature has the chance to clear up school election mess

by Jessica DeLoach Sabin ([email protected]) 102 views 

Editor’s note: Jessica DeLoach Sabin is a frequent contributor to Talk Business & Politics. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.

During the 2015 legislative session, an attempt was made to promote voter turnout by limiting the dates for certain special elections – which included school board elections.

This effort didn’t get much attention outside of the typical armchair political conversations that tend to float around while the legislature is convened. Those who favored the effort largely did so out of a legitimate concern over the costs associated with continuing to facilitate elections where voter turnout is typically low.

But there were also a great number of legitimate reasons to be opposed to this move. For instance, a candidate running for school board would have a whole new host of issues to face if their race was thrust into a sea of other races. Imagine wanting to have a voice in your local school district as a member of the board but sharing a ballot with others who are running for offices that extend all the way up to President of the United States.

Imagine trying to purchase advertising for your campaign or competing for editorial space along with all of these other candidates. Most people running for school board will not have a very easy time generating attention-grabbing headlines – or at least not for a good reason. Also, fundraising wouldn’t be easy either. By merging these elections with general elections, would we be creating a scenario where money gains more importance in school board elections? Do we really want to add the election of the boards that govern over our schools onto our longest ballot and hope that voters will be informed about each candidate before casting their vote?

Well, the rules in our state mandate that school board elections are on their own ballot – so there’s presently no cause for concern over getting buried underneath a myriad of other races in the voting booth. But this does not minimize any of the other concerns I’ve listed – and it actually highlights a problem that the Pulaski County Special School District is soon to face.

Near the end of the 2015 legislative session, Senator Jane English passed a bill that elicited very little response from the media. (In fact, I only remember seeing the AP mention this.) Senate Bill 968 amended Arkansas code 6-14-102(a)(1) to read as follows:

The annual school election shall be held in each school district of the state on third Tuesday in September or the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November of each year. (That means Election Day.)

For those of you who do not follow the ongoing turmoil surrounding the schools within Pulaski County, you should know that Johnny Key, the Commissioner of Education, decided to hold these school board elections on Tuesday, November 8th.

Remember how I said that school board elections couldn’t be conducted on the same ballot at everything else? That stands in this case. So let’s focus on Pulaski County.

Does this mean that election officials in Pulaski County must now manage concurrent elections on the most important Election Day that only comes once every four years? Yes.

This means that Pulaski County election workers are going to have to rent or borrow additional voting machines during a time when there probably aren’t very many extra ones to accommodate this need. They are going to have to program two different ballots, hire extra poll workers, and create different poll books for each election. So I question how these people aren’t being set up to fail.

There are approximately 67,000 voters that will have to stand in line twice to vote this November and I bet that a high percentage of these people don’t know that. An additional 7,000 voters will also have to travel to one voting location to vote in the general election and another polling site to vote in the school board election. How many of these people will find this out on the day they choose to vote? Such an inconvenience does little to incentivize voter participation.

Even if everything goes well, I cannot imagine how Pulaski County won’t be blamed for the confusion that’s experienced by voters come Election Day. The people who are responsible for executing all of this are presently preparing to do so at a significant disadvantage and anything that goes wrong will only give the appearance of continued chaos within the most Democratic county in the state.

Governor Hutchinson has now added an item to the agenda of the upcoming special session to address this issue. Starting Thursday, it’ll be up to the legislature to remedy this pending mess.