You may not have noticed yesterday, but an important election took place in Arkansas that is likely to affect you in a direct way.
Unfortunately, you probably heard little about it and odds are that you did not cast a ballot. I am referring to the local school board elections that take place in Arkansas on the third Tuesday of September.
These local officials often have a direct impact on the lives of the community. If you have children or grandchildren in school, these officials set the overall direction and policy for their education. If you own a business, your employees are educated in school under the direction of the school board. If you pay property taxes, the school board makes decisions in how a sizable chuck of these dollars is spent.
In fact, it’s hard to find another elected board that has such a dramatic impact on your local community than the school board. But the voter turnout for these elections remains amazingly low.
Numbers are not in yet for yesterday’s results but last year statewide turnout was only a little over 36,000, or about 2 percent of total registered voters. This compares to more than a million voters in the November 2012 general election where two-thirds of registered voters cast their ballots.
One group in Arkansas sought to change that this year. Funded largely by the Walton Family Foundation and other business groups, Arkansas Learns launched a get out the vote campaign called "9/17. We Vote, Students Win." The campaign utilized advertisements in television, radio and newspapers as well as social media and targeted phone calls to try to boost voter turnout. I know I personally received at least two phone calls from their group.
"If this campaign gets just 1 percent of voters to cast ballots who didn’t last time, we’ll nearly double turnout across the state," said Gary Newton, president of the group. "Most of us say students are our top priority. Here’s a chance to put our votes where our mouths are."
Another effort to increase turnout was made in a proposed change to the date for school board elections. Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, introduced a bill in the previous legislative session that would have moved school board elections from September to November to align with the general election date. The bill passed the Senate but failed in the House with, ironically, a large number of members not voting.
"Currently, with the shortfalls with teachers’ insurance, we are wasting several hundred thousand dollars holding special elections approximately 45 days before the general election," Williams noted, pointing not only to the increased voter turnout but the potential cost savings of his plan."We must encourage participation in the school board elections. We must ask school board members to campaign on their ideas."
Williams said it is likely he will try his proposal again in some form in the next regular session if he can get support for the idea. He said one option might be to make moving the school board election date from September to November optional and allow the local school district to make the decision. This would allow more local control and could help pass the idea through the Legislature.
Sadly, voter apathy continues to grow as many feel politicians are not responsive to the desires of their constituents. But the more local the election, the more direct contact voters can have with their elected representative. In school board elections, the candidates are literally your neighbors. It is important that we find a way to get more people involved in these important elections, but ultimately it is up to us,the voters, to get involved.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.