Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Political Strategy

A few local school districts asked their voters to approve new levies yesterday. It is interesting that the levies were defeated in New Albany and Pickerington, affluent suburban districts much like Hilliard. In both cases the votes were very close, but turnout was slim. The New Albany vote total was 3,134 and for Pickerington, it was 6,488 -- a small fraction of their registered voters I would think. The margin of defeat was just 134 in New Albany and 116 in Pickerington.

School officials have to develop political strategy when contemplating levies, and one of the things they need to decide is when to put a levy on the ballot. If they decide to offer the levy during the primary election, voter turnout is often pretty low. When you have a primary like this one when there are no national or statewide offices on the ballot, almost no one shows up. So the thought can be that all you have to do is get a few people in favor of the levy to have it pass. I guess that didn't work out for New Albany or Pickerington this time.

I've worked as an election official since the 2004 Presidential Election, when the Franklin County Board of Elections put out a plea for workers to handle what they anticipated would be record voter turnout (they were right!). Since then I've worked at all of the primary and general elections. An observation I've made is that the less interesting the races on the ballot, the fewer voters show up, and the more likely that those voters will be senior citizens (who show up faithfully for every election). I would think those senior citizens are likely to vote against school levies for two reasons: a) they don't have kids in school; and, b) they don't want their property taxes to go up. The conclusion is that you don't want to put a school levy on a ballot unless it includes races of general interest, like President or Governor.

Hilliard Schools officials have said that they need to have a levy on the ballot no later than May 2008. As I've written before, it is unlikely to appear on the November 2007 ballot because Mayor Schonhardt and his cronies are running for election, and it would be a bad thing for them politically to have this huge levy request on the same ballot, even though the Mayor is running unopposed at this point. It's much better for the Mayor to get to pick sides on the levy when he's not running and can choose to be for it or against it based on the prevailing political winds.

The May 2008 election should attract a decent amount of turnout since it will be a Presidential primary, and a number of national and statewide offices will be on the ballot. But I don't expect it will be like much like the 2004 Presidential election, when voters showed up in record numbers because each side had so much fear the other side would win. It didn't feel friendly at all -- it was a war at the polls. Many people showed up just to make the Bush vs Kerry choice and didn't care what else was on the ballot.

The May 2008 Primary won't have that kind of air, since the vote isn't about Red vs Blue, but instead Which Red and Which Blue will be on the November 2008 ballot. Did you know there is an interesting strategy available under Ohio voter law however? A voter can change their party at the poll on election day, and get to vote in the 'other' primary. Why would you do that? Well, if you trust your party to pick the right candidate, some feel it is beneficial to vote in the opposite party primary and select the candidate which is most easily defeated! I very much doubt that this has any appreciable effect, because if it did, we'd see a massive switching of parties for the primary, and the result would be the selection of the two weakest candidates.

All that aside, I feel the lesson for our School Board is the same as I have been saying for many months now. They need to be talking to the public now about this next levy; starting the process of educating us on why it will be so huge. The most reliable voters are the seniors who, as I said above, have a natural adversion to more levies. If the proposed amendment makes it to the ballot, I think those seniors will be further demotivated to vote for a new levy when the promise of the amendment is to give them a property tax exemption. People in general will be confused why they just passed an amendment to lower their property taxes yet are being asked by the school officials to raise them a ton.

Our school officials have led us to the brink of disaster. If the amendment passes (and I hope it doesn't), it won't help us in time. If the May 2008 levy doesn't pass, the cutbacks required for the 2008-2009 school year will be severe, and perhaps cause a delay in opening Bradley High School in 2010 (because opening it requires $4 million in new payroll costs alone).

By the way, if you want to see a nice graphic image of school tax trends in Franklin County, check out this chart in Bonobo's blog, Blue Bexley

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