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Guest Commentary

Sept 22, 2011
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Low voter turnout is hardly a ‘revolution'

By Graham Gillette

Only 5 percent of Des Moines voters thought participating in yesterday's school board elections was worthy of their time.

So, it is fair to say the 111,831 voters who did not vote:

1. Had something more important to do/didn't care;

2. Didn't have any idea there was an election going on, which is possible since the five people running raised a whopping combined total of $4,763 or about 4 cents per registered voter to communicate with the electorate. One candidate didn't raise a dime. (Looks like the candidates weren't too concerned about the election themselves.);

3. Thought the candidates were so indistinguishable from one another that voting was a waste of time;

4. Meant to, but the line at Burger King was so long that if they would have stopped to vote they would have missed the first five minutes of that Brady Bunch rerun; or

5. Decided to leave it to somebody smarter to decide who should serve.

The depressingly low turnout meant supporters of instituting a ward system only needed to convince 2,948 voters to go along. The ward system got 3,865 votes which means, going forward, four school board members will be elected by voters living in distinct geographic areas and the remaining three by voters across the district.

In victory, ward initiative organizer Marty Mauk said the measure's passage shows, "citizens are fed up and they are ready for a change." Umm, generally when people are fed up they stream to the polls instead of staying home in their jammies. It is reasonable to assume a few of the 3 percent of voters voting "yes" may have been mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore (Marty, for one). But I would bet the emotional temperature of most "yes" voters hovered closer to "the change won't hurt" than it did "revolution."

The ward vote and yesterday's turnout generated an equally odd quote from school board member Connie Boesen who said, "The bigger question is not how we elect school board members, but whether we should elect school boards at all."

Wait. What?

Democracy isn't a phase people grow out of. The fact so few voted indicates there is a problem, but the goal has to be getting more people involved in public education, not penalizing them because they currently are not engaged. I called Boesen. She claims she made the statement out of frustration, not because she has a plan for creating an appointed board free from voter approval. Fair enough, but rarely is it productive to throw out a terrible idea to make a case for changing something that isn't working well.

A good first fix is one that I have been advocating for years. In an October 2006 guest essay in Cityview, I suggested the Iowa General Assembly should move school board elections to odd years at the time of city council elections. No longer would school board elections be a stand-alone vote during a season when it is difficult to capture the public's attention. People would be more interested in turning out to decide a number of issues relating to their communities. More importantly, combining the elections might cause municipal and school leaders to better understand each other and seek common ground.

This year the Des Moines City Council has embraced the combined election idea. Here's hoping it will generate more traction in the 2012 legislative session than it did in 2007 when I wrote to then Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro seeking support for the idea.

The next fix may be in encouraging people in our community who are passionate about our schools to stand for election by becoming more engaged ourselves. No other government entity plays a more vital role in determining the health of our community and shaping our collective future than does our school district. We need people to run who are more interested in doing the job than they are in adding to their resume, and we need to assist them once they get elected by keeping them informed and being involved in public education every day, not just when an election or the right moods strike us. CV

Graham Gillette lives in Des Moines with his wife and three kids. He runs a public affairs/communications consulting firm and is a past board member of DMPS.

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