The Ins and Outs (Or Ups and Downs) of Turnout
Let’s talk about turnout.
Specifically, let’s talk about turnout in Missouri school district elections. And not the usual rant about how it’s shamefully low (it is), but about what affects it.
For more than a month now, I’ve been working to create a database, which will eventually be publicly available, that details voter turnout in Missouri school district elections. Out of the number of eligible voters in any given district, how many show up to express an opinion? The answer? Usually 20 percent or less.
The real answer? Well, we just don’t know.
Even if we know that 20 percent voted in a school board election, we don’t know whether it was of primary interest to them, or whether they just happened to cast a vote while voting on an issue of more importance to them. Some vote based solely on name recognition, while others use even more arbitrary criteria.
School board election turnouts vary widely. In general, if there is a financial issue on the ballot, turnout spikes for school board races in the same election. Take Cape Girardeau School District’s 2000 school board race. Turnout was 17.61 percent, in a district with an average turnout of 11.96 percent. It’s important to note that the other years showing relatively high turnout (2002, 2003, and 2008) had no financial issues tied to this specific school district.
What’s most surprising about this chart, though, is the 2007 turnout. At 1.03 percent, the nature of this election definitely had something to do with that low average turnout. So why did turnout jump more than 18 percentage points from 2007 to 2008 if there were no financial issues on the ballot?
I spoke with Cape Girardeau’s election supervisor, and he told me that it probably had something to do with a proposed storm water tax increase that mobilized a lot of voters. So those eligible to vote in the school board race as well may have done so only incidentally.
There are, of course, many other factors that affect turnout. What month the election is held in, for instance. The above elections, as with most school board elections, were held in April. In August or November, turnout would likely be higher — though, again, this may reflect only an elevated number of voters rather than elevated interest.
Actual turnout percentages may be influenced by the competitiveness of a particular race. If there is a clear winner, voters may not bother going to the polls.
The bottom line is that school board races are not insulated from other issues. Jumps and dips may be partially explained by a number of factors outside the race itself.
During the coming weeks, I hope to post more of my findings about turnout in Missouri school district elections. Let this post serve as a reminder that numbers, while useful, can only be informative when examined critically and applied cautiously.