Why school elections matter

by | May 4, 2021 | Miscellaneous | 0 comments

Indulge me in a couple of thoughts about the May 18 election, inspired in part by last week’s forum sponsored by the Corvallis branch of the League of the Women Voters. (Yes, this was the forum that I moderated featuring the nine candidates for four positions on the Corvallis School Board.)

There seems to be an unusual amount of interest in this particular school election, judging by the 170 or so participants who checked out the league’s forum on Zoom — and, believe me, two hours is a long time to spend on Zoom, especially on a warm and sunny Wednesday night.

Part of the heightened interest in this election echoes something that other observers have noticed around Oregon and the nation: The polarization that has marked the nation has crept, perhaps inevitably, into local issues, including school board elections. In Corvallis, that’s reflected in the fact that this election features a slate of four candidates who are emphasizing equity in the schools and another slate of four opposing candidates who argue, in essence, that equity is a good thing but that the current board has put too much emphasis on equity issues. (This is, of course, an oversimplification, but if you watch the forum — which is posted on the league’s website — you’ll be able to quickly sort out which candidates fall into which camp.)

In general, we pay relatively scant attention to school elections — they tend to be quiet affairs, held during the spring in years that don’t feature high-profile national or state races. It’s not unusual for many school-board races to be unopposed. (Corvallis is a bit of an exception; in the last three school board elections, only three races were uncontested.)

These elections also tend to draw lower turnouts. The 2017 school board election drew a turnout of just 38%. The 2015 election did a little better, with about 46% turnout.

By contrast, the turnout in Benton County for the 2020 presidential election was just under 88%. So, in other words, the turnout in even a relatively strong school election is about half of what we get in a national election.

I understand this, to some extent — especially considering the money that’s poured into a high-stakes national election.

But it also seems exactly backward to me, and here’s why: These local races have much more impact on our day-to-day lives than any national contest. The people we elect to our city councils, our county commissions, our school boards, make decisions that affect the schools our children attend, the roads and sidewalks we travel, the safety of our communities, our quality of life. On some level, it’s always seemed to me that these are the elections that should be getting 90% turnout.

During the League of Women Voters forum, I kept wondering this: What would happen if each of those 170 people watching went out and made sure that two or three of their friends voted in the May 18 election? And those friends kept the momentum going with their friends?

Democracy is a team sport: Not everyone will be on the same side, but let’s at least hope that we can get more than half of the electorate onto the playing field.

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