The Compliance/Resistance Divide
It’s just not something you ask: How much money do you make in a year, what exactly do you do to earn it, what insurance does your employer provide, and what’s your allowance for a company car?
Contrast this to: What was the turnout in last year’s school election?
If you ask the first questions of a superintendent, and the second of a county clerk, both are required to answer. But the first is clearly a more invasive question.
In the Show-Me Institute’s Columbia office, my fellow researcher, Audrey Spalding, has been asking the first question of all 522 Missouri school districts. I, in the same office, also using the Sunshine Law, have been asking the second of all 114 Missouri county clerks, plus the city of St. Louis election board, if you’re keeping score.*
So, who’s had more success?
The answer might surprise you.
Out of the 115 requests I sent, I have now received 92 responses. That’s an 80-percent success rate. Audrey has sent about 100 requests during the past three business days. Her success rate? About 40 percent.
Superficially, it seems that county clerks have been more forthcoming than school districts. However, I began making my requests in the last week of May. The 40 percent who have responded to Audrey’s requests did so well within the three-day limit stipulated by the Sunshine Law for the party receiving the request to acknowledge receipt of the request.
I have struggled (emailing and calling repeatedly) for more than a month now to gain compliance from several county clerks. Audrey’s on track to beat me by a long shot when it comes to compliance. And she has yet to pick up the phone.
Our formula is the same. We have sent the same request, changing only the paragraph specifying what we’re asking for.
What about the price of the information? I’ve paid 33 counties an average of $28.83 for their records. Of the 12 counties from whom I have not received records because of excessive charges, the average cost would have exceeded $100 per county.
Audrey’s costs? Only two school districts out of the 45 from which she has received contracts have charged a fee — each about $3, for copying costs.
My requests have met with more resistance than Audrey’s. Quite frankly, this surprises me. My request for voting records seems to have a lot less potential to be used to cast stones. Let me reiterate that none of our research is being conducted for advocacy purposes. My intent is only to point out that it may appear to superintendents receiving Audrey’s requests that she is trying to unearth something or to paint them in a negative light. But it seems that only a small number of superintendents have taken it that way. And, if they have, they have called to ask questions, but not attempted to stonewall her.
So, what accounts for the compliance/resistance divide?
It could be a number of things. For one, I am requesting nine years’ worth of data, some of it not accessible from a computer. For many districts, fulfilling Audrey’s request is as simple as faxing over a contract. For county clerks, a great deal more digging might be required. It may be that some county clerks have been noncompliant simply to avoid the work associated with my request.
Other county clerks have responded to my request defensively. Many noted that their predecessor resigned or that they had been on the job only a year or two. It may be that some clerks are nervous about how the clarity or completeness of their county’s voting records will reflect on their performance.
Still others have told me apologetically that they know their turnout in school district elections is low. I assumed that most county clerks realized that other counties’ turnout rates are similarly low, but that may not be the case. It could be that they are concerned that their county will look bad by comparison.
Whatever the reason, for now it seems that public election results are more difficult to obtain than salary and benefit information — which many Americans consider to be private.
*Also, after an additional phone call directly to the clerk, Jasper County sent the requested voting records.
If you have any questions about the purpose or intent of our research, please email me.