Sunday, January 15, 2017

Consolidated Community Elections

Honestly, how many of you will vote February 7 for school-board members? (I'll vote to re-elect Maria Flores!) How many will vote in the Soil and Water Conservation District election in May – or even know that DASWCD elections violate the Constitutional “one person, one vote” rule? 

Fact is, very few. In November 2016, 71,362 county residents voted; in November 2014, 40,628; and in 2015, 3,798 for school board and 2,937 for DASWCD. 

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto is introducing a bill that would consolidate elections. Election day would be in early October every year; and all that “minor” stuff that happens at odd times or on odd years we'd vote on that day: city council, ballot questions, conservation districts, school boards, city charter amendments. Everything.

Why is that a good thing? First, it'll clearly save money. One election this year, not three or four.
More important, it'll shine more of a light on some elections that don't garner enough attention. A blatant example is Doña Ana Soil and Water Conservation District elections. The board is wholly unrepresentative of the voters in this County. That's partly because board-members' districts are drawn up unfairly and probably illegally: a voter in Salem or Garfield is equivalent to dozens or hundreds of voters in Las Cruces. (I haven't done the math.) The result is a board that is mostly against conservation and wastes time on resolutions to fight Agenda 21 and the BLM.

Hiding the ball is easier because the election occurs on relatively short notice at an odd time. You have to care enough about your DASWCD representative to make a special trip to the voting booth. Records show few people bother. (A few more might if those elections were fairer.) That helps an unrepresentative group perpetuate itself, claiming to speak for us as a quasi-public body.

Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison says, “We support consolidation of elections because turnouts will increase, resulting in better representation. Also, the more people actually vote, the more people feel invested in our governments. Government isn't some abstract concept. It's the people.”

Ivey-Soto says “The public has a right to know when their taxes are going to rise, and consolidation ensures the public has that ability.”

County Clerk Scott Krahling calls it “a no-brainer” and will testify in favor of the bill. “I support consolidating all these smaller elections into a community election on a year when we don't have the general election. It saves money, it's more efficient, and it's more accessible to voters. Everyone knows when the vote is.” 

The counter-argument is that the school-board election issues would get lost in the commotion of a general election. And that more people who aren't deeply interested in schools would vote in school-board elections, whereas only those who really care turn out for a quiet election in February. (Ms. Flores says she sees both sides and hasn't a strong view on the bill, although the state school board always opposes consolidation.)

I can understand a school board's desire to have its special day.

But all elections get less attention than would be ideal. We're busy people. We have a right to vote on who'll run our schools or towns or conservation districts. Making it easier to exercise that right is pretty important. Someone who works long hours every day and hasn't time or energy to vote six times a year instead of one or two, s/he has the same right as the person with plenty of time or a more flexible schedule.

Consolidated community elections better serve our democratic values in the 21st Century.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 15 January 2017, as well as on the newspaper's website and (presently) on the KRWG-TV website.]
[A careful reader might inquire, "Why October?"  Originally, it read, "November" -- great time for an election.  But a few communities have run-off elections when no one wins a clear victory.  If the "main" election is in November, that means that in those communities you could be making the final decision about Mayor or councilor in December, which gets awfully close to the end of the year.  I assume the concern is that it would limit time for a new mayor or councilor to make plans or bone up on stuff before assuming office, unless December brings worth weather or seems to close to Christmas.  At any rate, the change was made to October.]

[I should note that the counter-argument to community elections is that with, for example, the school board, a smaller subset of citizens are directly interested in how the schools are run and that in a solely school board election most or all of the voters are focused on that issue and have at least some idea whom the prefer and why; if school board choices are on the ballot with a bunch of other choices, it could be that a higher percentage of the voters who vote in school board elections will be there to vote for mayor or whatever, will know nothing about the school board election, and will vote based on party or some frivolous basis.  That's not an unreasonable argument.  However, one should note that since school boards use our tax money, others who don't work in schools or have school-age children do have a legitimate interest in the elections; and in my view the considerations supporting the change (including saving money, facilitating bigger turnouts, and avoiding abuses such as the soil-and-water district "elections") outweigh it.]

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