This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on September 30, 2014.
As local government debt explodes in Texas, voters are becoming increasingly uneasy about the prospect of paying for more debt out of their property taxes. As a result, some local government entities, especially school districts, are crafting ways pass bonds more easily in low-turnout elections.
In May, Texas school districts held bond elections asking taxpayers to approve of over $6 billion dollars in bonds for a variety of projects and purposes. That’s a lot to ask of voters who are weary of mounting public debt. Restless taxpayers might even choose to reject large bond packages. To avoid that threat to the status quo, school districts are figuring out ways to make participation in local elections more difficult than ever before.
Of course, none of them would come out and admit this. Openly discouraging voter participation would invoke widespread disgust among the media and the public. Therefore, the ways in which low turnout is ensured are often clouded from the public, cloaked in myriad excuses, or both.
It starts with May elections. Although May was once the regular time for most municipal and school board elections in Texas, the state legislature attempted to encourage the move to November elections in 2011 to avoid conflicting with new primary runoff dates during federal election years. In fact, this was the default choice for local government entities—if they did not take action to keep elections in May by December 31, 2011, the next year’s elections would be moved to November by default.
Curiously, however, some local governments, and many school districts, decided to keep their elections in May. At first glance it is a strange choice, because choosing to hold May elections requires those school districts or cities to foot the cost of the separate election. In even years, counties are orchestrating a separate federal runoff election around the same time.
But the cost of holding elections in May—in most cases, no more than five figures—is a small price to pay for a school district to restrict turnout and virtually ensure that their big bonds pass. Even when localities hold their regular elections in November, they may still choose to hold bond elections specifically in May to take advantage of lower voter turnout.
Round Rock ISD did this in May when they held an election for a $299 million bond package. They held the bond election in May, even though their board trustees are elected in November. The Round Rock ISD bond attracted just over 6,200 votes for the three bond propositions, each of which passed by healthy margins. By contrast, the most recent Round Rock ISD trustee elections in 2012 attracted 26,960 votes in the Place 2 election and 27,265 votes in the Place 7 election, respectively. Would the results have been different if they had held the bond election this November, when 5 board trustee places are being elected? We can’t know, because the taxpayers of Round Rock didn’t get that chance.
In many school districts, “rolling polling” is practiced, whereupon early voting is shifted day by day to different slates of voting locations. For example, on Monday, there might be 5 different polling locations, but then on Tuesday, there would be 5 that were totally different from Monday’s, and so on. This is not only legal, it’s quite common, especially in large districts with many campuses. Frisco ISD and Cy-Fair ISD both implemented rolling polling in the 2014 May bond elections.
But no poorly run election would be complete without poor information for the voters. Because local governments are not required to include existing debt in ballot language, or mention the staggering amounts of interest that taxpayers will also be on the hook for, bond propositions sit on ballots without any context at all.
Without adequate information, confusing early voting locations that shift from site to site, and inconvenient election dates that are out of step with the rest of the election schedule, it’s no wonder that voters are frustrated with the status quo in May bond elections, and so few turn out.
But then, that may have been the plan all along.
Fields is senior policy analyst at the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He may be reached at email@example.com.