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School board elections shouldn’t be separate
Sean Parnell • Jun 05, 2024

I recently wrote about the problem of low turnout in mayoral races, which appears to be caused by scheduling them (many of them, at least) separately from elections for federal and state elections.

Mayor’s races (and elections for city council) aren’t the only elections that are frequently held apart from races for state and federal offices. Elections for school board are often held on days that more or less guarantee low turnout.

A recent report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York explained what’s a stake in school board elections:

According to a 2022 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, nearly 90,000 school board members oversee the education of more than 50 million public school students with broad responsibilities for district governance that include the allocation of $600 billion in expenditures.

That’s quite a bit of money, and obviously education is a critical service. So what is the typical turnout? According to that same Carnegie report (and several other sources), between five and ten percent turnout is typical.

Recent school board elections in two somewhat comparable counties illustrate the difference. On November 7, 2023, Fairfax County in Virginia (the 42nd most populous county in the country) and Mecklenburg County in North Carolina (the 40th most populous county in the country) both held school board elections. In Fairfax, turnout was around 45 percent of registered voters, while in Mecklenburg it was a little over fifteen percent.

Both of these were technically “off-cycle” elections, being held separate from federal elections. The difference was that in Virginia, state legislators were on the ballot, drawing far more voters to the polls than in North Carolina, which did not have any state elections on the ballot. The biggest election in Mecklenburg County that day was for the mayor of Charlotte.

And of course, holding school board elections the same day as state and federal elections boosts turnout even more. Here’s how a recent report from the America First Policy Institute described Michigan’s decision to move to on-cycle elections more than a decade ago:

“Reforms in Michigan demonstrate how switching to on-cycle elections raises turnout in school board elections. In 2011, the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring on-cycle school board elections (HB 4005, 2011). Previously, the election dates varied by school district, with some on-cycle, some during the August primary election, and some in the spring or other times during the year. The reform was associated with substantially increased voter turnout in school board elections. In some districts, voter turnout went from under 10 percent in the years before 2011 to more than 60 percent in 2012…”

There doesn’t seem to be any question whether moving school board elections on-cycle with state and federal elections will dramatically increase turnout and provide greater voter input and accountability for this critical government service. The only real question seems to be, why hasn’t on-cycle school board elections become the norm in every state?