Turnout was much higher at last fall’s Wake County school board elections than in past years, but most school board members want to return to the days of lower turnout contests in odd-numbered years.
Wake school board elections were historically held in October in odd-numbered years where the voter turnout was usually under 20 percent. Raleigh and Cary municipal elections were the only other items that were on the school board ballot.
But the legal fight over the General Assembly’s efforts to redraw Wake’s school board lines wound up putting the races on last November’s ballot alongside president, Congress, governor and General Assembly. Voter turnout in Wake was 75 percent last year.
Most Wake school board members want their elections back in odd-numbered years and agreed Tuesday to add the issue to their draft 2017 legislative agenda. School board members said people who voted in November 2016 were less informed on education issues than in past years.
“While I don’t disagree that you had more total numbers at the polls, I think you had a lower number who had actually paid attention to the school based issues,” said school board member Jim Martin. “There were a lot of people who showed up at the polls this year and ended up casting a vote that did not know there was a school board election.
“If you show up at the polls not knowing there’s a school board election, you’re not going to make an informed decision.”
In 2013, state lawmakers threw out the maps the school board drew in 2011 with new lines as well as moving the contests to even-numbered years. Federal judges declared the new state-drawn maps to be unconstitutional but allowed elections to go ahead in 2016 using the old maps.
The General Assembly is expected to pass new Wake school maps this year.
At Tuesday’s work session, new school board member Donald Agee said he disagreed with restoring elections to odd-numbered years being part of the legislative agenda. He cited the low turnout in past years in his District 1, which includes Wake Forest, Rolesville and much of eastern Wake.
In 2013, there were 8,166 ballots cast in the District 1 school board race. Last year, there were 49,555 ballots cast in the four-way contest that saw Agee unseat school board Chairman Tom Benton.
“All you have to do is look and if it’s in the odd-numbered years...the turnout is very poor,” Agee said. “The turnout is much better on the even-numbered years so all those people in the unincorporated areas are more apt to show up at the polls.”
The other school boards seats on the 2013 ballot – Districts 2, 7 and 9 – also saw big jumps in voter turnout in 2016.
A total of 39,851 ballots were cast in 2013 for the four school board races on the ballot. There was a 325 percent increase to 169,414 ballots cast last year in those four contests even with the District 7 race being uncontested.
But soon other board members raised their support for elections in odd-numbered years.
Martin said school board races lost traction last year fighting for attention against the national and state contests. Martin said he thought there were a greater number of voters informed on education issues who cast ballots in odd-numbered elections than in 2016.
Martin and school board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler argued against having non-partisan school board elections on the same ballot as partisan races that occur in even-numbered years.
School board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner cited how turnout at school board candidate forums were much lower last year than in past years.
School board member Bill Fletcher said it’s hard getting media coverage and campaign donations for school board races when they’re in the same election cycle with federal and statewide races.
“There’s no oxygen left in the room,” Fletcher said. “Donors have been tapped out. Media is fully invested in covering races larger than a district school board race.
“I think it’s a very difficult and potentially dangerous set of circumstances that wind up with the school board being a tag at the bottom of a party’s endorsement list as opposed to something that is actually considered when people go to the polls.”
New school board member Lindsay Mahaffey backed her colleagues in going back to odd-numbered years.
“The social studies teacher in me says that an informed electorate is a better electorate and the teacher in me also says there’s only so much information that you can retain when you have campaign sign after campaign sign after campaign sign for every election on the ballot, and it was a very long ballot this year,” Mahaffey said.
“That ability to retain all the issues makes it harder for that electorate to be as informed.”
The end result of the discussion is that the board told staff to make the case for returning to elections in odd-numbered years in a meeting Thursday with the Wake County state legislative delegation.