Members of the state Senate have voted to shift many Oklahoma school-board elections to November in a move supporters say will increase voter participation and candidate filings.
“There has not been a state that has moved the elections to the general that has seen lower participation or less people file, and the data is conclusive on that,” said Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “There’s also conclusive data that voter participation among minority groups is higher in general and presidential years, and it’s more reflective of the electorate for which the school board serves in every state without exception.”
Senate Bill 962, by Treat, would place general elections for school-board positions on the November general election ballot, and shift primaries for those positions to September in odd-numbered years and August in even-numbered years.
Currently, most school-board elections occur on obscure spring election dates that draw few voters.
But opponents of SB 962 suggested voters would be overwhelmed by electioneering in November races and that uninformed decisions would prevail in school-board races if the bill becomes law.
“As always when something like this comes up, I go talk to school community leaders that I trust—current school-board members,” said Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso. “They have concerns that there will be a larger, uninformed voter (group) making the decision. And I guess, honestly, they like lower turnout with a higher-informed voter.”
“Any time you have a change, the education establishment resists that change, just like anyone else who currently benefits off the system would do so,” Treat responded. “I defer to school leaders in many instances, but when it comes to getting parents more involved and when it comes to getting taxpayers more involved in holding their school districts accountable, what we are doing today doesn’t work.”
One opponent suggested that school-board candidates will face a broader array of issues if they run in November.
“Do you anticipate that the issues that are national or statewide in scope will dominate the races’ conversation, the information that gets covered when we talk about school boards?” asked Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City.
“I assume that the electorate will be more informed,” Treat responded, noting that when Oklahoma City charter changes were placed on the November ballot last year it resulted in “a much greater participation in that, much more information was sent about.”
The Oklahoma State School Boards Association issued a “legislative alert” which declared that moving school-board elections to November would “allow party politics to creep into non-partisan races.” (School-board races remain nonpartisan under the bill.) The OSSBA also said the shift would force school-board candidates “to compete for time and attention with other general election races,” which the OSSBA said would “be expensive and discourage good candidates from running for the office.”
However, Treat said states that have moved school-board elections to November include California, New Jersey, and Ohio, and noted that no states or localities have reversed course after shifting school-board elections to November.
He said Oklahoma’s current system, which places most school-board elections at odd times of the year, generates very low turnout and few candidates.
“The current system has a ton of races around the state that no one files for or one person files for,” Treat said. “I anticipate, and the aim of this legislation would be (to) get more people involved and more people to file. And that has been the case across the nation where they have moved elections to the general.”
From 2014 to 2016, Ballotpedia conducted studies of school board elections in 1,000 of the nation’s largest school districts and found that between 32 percent and 36 percent of those races drew just one candidate.
Treat also noted that research has shown that low-turnout school-board elections empower special-interest groups, particularly unions.
That point was raised in a 2015 article by Eitan Hersh, who was at that time an assistant professor of political science at Yale University. In it, Hersh wrote, “Scheduling local elections at odd times appears to be a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping turnout low, which gives more influence to groups like teachers unions that have a direct stake in the election’s outcome.”
“If you suppress voter turnout, you have a greater deal of influence on those people who do show up to vote, and the unions—without a doubt—have a vested interest in showing up and turning out their membership,” Treat said.
He said Oklahoma’s current education status is not acceptable.
“I want to disrupt the status quo,” Treat said.
SB 962 passed on a 38-9 vote that broke along party lines with Republicans in support.