School districts and other local governments are intentionally holding elections at odd times this summer to drive down turnout in hopes it will help them win voter approval for tax increases and bond issues, state lawmakers say.
Local government leaders say they don’t set elections on odd days in hopes of a more favorable outcome at the ballot box, but the issue is fast becoming a new tension point in the sometimes adversarial relationship between local government agencies and the Republican-led Texas Legislature.
“There will be a response from the Legislature,” pledged State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican.
Just last month the Klein Independent School District in Harris County held a tax increase election on June 16 — a Saturday. That was three weeks after Texas voters took to the polls for statewide runoff elections on May 22. And three weeks before that, the city of Houston held a special election on May 5 to fill a city council vacancy.
Next up: South San Antonio Independent School District is holding an election on Aug. 14 in an attempt to raise the district’s property tax rate by 13 cents per $100 of taxable value, which would increase school taxes by $130 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.
And on August 25, Harris County will ask voters to approve a $2.5 billion bond issue to cover the cost of flood control projects. That same day, voters in Floresville ISD, just outside of San Antonio, are being asked to approve a tax increase.
“It is preposterously bad public policy to spend taxpayer money to hold special elections in the dog days of summer that almost always have a low voter turnout,” Bettencourt said.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett shot back. “People who live in Senator Bettencourt’s senate district were affected by the flooding. He should be doing more to help them instead of worrying about election dates,” he said.
Klein ISD superintendent Bret Champion said the district wasn’t playing games with the June election. The district was looking for the earliest possible date in order to have time to prepare for the next school year budget, whether the measure passed or failed.
If the district had waited until November, he said, the election would have been two months into the budget year and its failure would have forced adjustments with the school year already well underway.
“It was a budgetary reason, not a political one,” Champion said.
As a matter of principle, I too would rather see elections generally held in November and May, when people expect them to be. It’s what I wanted for the flood bond referendum, as you may recall. It’s not just a matter of being more democratic, it’s also that I believe higher turnout is generally better for issues and candidates I care about. Not all the time, of course (Exhibit A: the year 2010), but more often than not. There’s a reason I care about things like registering voters and making it easier and more convenient to vote. I’ll admit it can be a tossup for things like the Klein ISD tax ratification election, where only the most interested will participate and it’s not obvious who those people will be, but give me a choice and I’ll take the higher turnout scenario.
That said, I have some sympathy for school districts that are only holding these dumb elections because legislators like Paul Bettencourt forced them to as a way to impose a low-tax low-revenue orthodoxy on them, and I can understand the rationale for the August flood bond election date even if I disagree with it. It’s especially rich to hear Bettencourt sing the praises of higher turnout, given his long career in the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office of purging the voter rolls as a tool of voter suppression, not to mention his party’s enthusiastic embrace of voter ID. Tell you what, Paul I’ll support your push for May and November-only elections if you’ll support online and same-day voter registration. You want to encourage higher turnout in elections, put your money where your mouth is.