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Turnout falls in school budget elections after surge in all-mail voting last year
2021 SCHOOL ELECTIONS

Turnout falls in school budget elections after surge in all-mail voting last year

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Voter turnout in school budget elections across the Capital Region fell nearly 70 percent Tuesday compared to last year, when turnout levels more than doubled after districts were required to send absentee ballots to all eligible voters.

The turnout levels on Tuesday were also down nearly 17 percent compared to May 2019, when election and vote rules essentially matched what was in place this year, according to a Daily Gazette analysis of turnout levels in nearly 60 Capital Region school districts.

In Schenectady, for example, budget voter turnout climbed from just over 1,000 voters in 2019 to over 3,700 last year, before falling to just over 1,400 voters on Tuesday.

Turnout across nearly 60 Capital Region districts fell from nearly 140,000 total voters last year to 45,000 total voters this year — a 68 percent decline. District voters approved budgets in every Capital Region district this month, and the New York State School Boards Association estimated over 99 percent of school budgets were approved statewide.

The same pattern emerged statewide, where just over 520,000 votes were cast in Tuesday’s election, down significantly from the over 1.5 million votes cast last year.

A major increase in state education aid, which was bolstered thanks to an infusion of federal stimulus directed to the state, also allowed many districts to walk back earlier proposed tax levy increases and spending cuts. The relatively limited increases to tax levies proposed by districts may have also contributed to the falloff in voter turnout, said Bob Lowry of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One of my basic thoughts is some voters vote by not voting,” Lowry said. “They come out when upset with large tax increases, a controversy in the district or are concerned about a budget being voted down.”

(The budgets adopted Tuesday did not account for yet more federal aid headed directly to school districts. While voter turnout surged in last year’s election, many district leaders resented the compressed timeline, added costs and difficulty of identifying who should be sent ballots. By the time districts were told how to conduct the election, which was delayed from May until June amid shifting pandemic concerns and restrictions, many struggled to obtain the paper and envelopes needed to distribute the large number of ballots required. Some districts did not have complete voter lists from which to work from. And a compressed timeline gave voters very little time to return ballots by the deadline to be counted.

“If the state had set out to make something difficult for districts, it could not have succeeded more completely,” Lowry said of last year’s election rules requiring ballots be sent to eligible voters. “It’s inherently expensive, carries some complications and it was made worse by the fact that districts had to put it together on the fly.”

But last year’s school votes did prove one point: sending ballots to voters helps increase turnout. Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which advocates for greater participation in elections, said last year’s school elections should provide a lesson to policymakers considering whether to make permanent changes that made it easier to vote during the pandemic.

“Last year is hopefully a once-in-a-century experience we won’t have to go through again, but the lessons are still to be learned,” he said. “One lesson is you make it easier for people to fill out a mail ballot and turnout is higher. That should be a lesson that is employed in the future.”

Horner pointed out that other states conduct many elections entirely through mail-in ballots and have done so successfully and with higher turnout than many other states. (He said NYPIRG had not analyzed all-mail voting enough to take a definitive position.)

“I think it’s a legitimate issue to examine,” Horner said of all-mail balloting, which is how Oregon and some other Western states run their elections. “There are states that do that and they do it well and effectively and without significant problems.”

In November, voters across the state will have a chance to adopt a constitutional amendment allowing no-excuse absentee ballots in state and local elections (meaning anyone can request without providing a reason). The constitutional amendment is required because of language in the state Constitution that requires an excuse for absentee ballots.

But Lowry said he does not think the amendment would apply to school elections, which are governed by education law statutes rather than election law. He also said lawmakers could extend no-excuse absentee ballots to school elections if they wanted to with a statutory change since the current language requiring an excuse also does not apply to school elections — hence the reason last year’s school elections were able to shift to all-mail voting, Lowry noted.

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