by David Noll, Staff Writer
The way that seemingly innocuous procedural matters can shape the outcomes of elections is quite frightening. This year, New Jersey’s school board elections will showcase this phenomenon. Towns in New Jersey are now allowed to move their elections from mid-April to November 6th. Most districts have made the change in order to capitalize on a lower cost to hosting the elections. Also, by moving the elections districts are allowed to increase budgets within the district’s tax levy. The state passed legislation allowing this in the hopes of producing higher voter turnout. This isn’t a new idea. Other states hold school elections along with the general elections and states like New York have talked about moving the election date for decades. So why would it matter to change the date?
In the past, estimates for school board election turnout ranged from 25% to under 15% of registered voters in the state. In 2010, 55.6% of New Jersey citizens were registered to vote; New Jersey had a total population of approximately 8.8 million people, meaning between 0.6 and 1.2 million people in Jersey care about school board elections enough to vote. The problem may be in putting the levers to vote in front of the 36.2% of New Jersey that goes to vote in the general election (or 3.2 million people). As long as the current school board voters are a more homogenous group then the total electorate, the outcomes and interests of school board elections will face pressure to shift.
Part of the incentive for districts to move their elections to Nov 6th is that by doing so they may increase their budget within the tax levy (~%2) without needing a vote on the budget. This was a good move by legislators. Without this provision, few districts would pass their budgets once the new voting body shows up on the 6th[P1] . The new school board election date is going to see a voting body closer to that of the state average in all demographics. If the old voting group had higher than average numbers of parents and grandparents in it, who may have been willing to increase school budgets, then the new voting group will, theoretically, be broader and less inclined to vote for increased taxes and school budgets.
By allowing the board to increase the budget for the coming year without a vote there is now a larger incentive for tax conscious voters to take an active role in school boards. When this is combined with a larger, less education-oriented voting group, the chance that voters will deny budget increases is higher.
This is bad for the schools but it is also bad from an electoral standpoint. America doesn’t have compulsory voting so that people that don’t want to vote or don’t care about electoral outcomes are free to abstain. A simple calculation using rational voter theory shows us that the voters who already turn out to school board elections benefit more. Those that will vote out of convenience only do so because their cost to voting, or their minimum required level of interest, is reduced.
This year’s elections won’t result in a large-scale change to school boards. Undoubtedly, some veteran board members will lose their seats to new faces that campaign to the full electorate better. And in the first year, budgets are going to increase as they have in the past. Keep in mind that the board from the year before writes the budget for the coming year. It is in the next few years that the change will be most evident. The broadening of the voting body and shifting of those voter’s goals means that candidates for school boards will change as well.
Because elections are an iterated game, as the voters and the candidates get a better feel for the new playing field the best campaigners will move away from the interests of schools and parents. Instead, their primary interest will be on the taxes that fund schools. If this newer group in the electorate realizes the power they have, then it is unlikely that veteran board members will get re-elected unless they move from their pro-education focus.
For districts that did choose to move elections to Nov 6th, they are ineligible to move the elections back into April for four years. This is a good length of a test period for an electoral change. The worry is that by the end of four years the board members will have been elected by the general voting body of New Jersey and not the original smaller body who had a motivating interest in the elections in the first place. Meaning that, like in all other elections, the man who won by the rules in place will be hesitant to change them.
David Noll is a first-year student at William & Mary Law School and a Staff Writer for the State of Elections blog.