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Low turnout is the norm in school board elections

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Who cares?

That’s the more civil version of a common question often asked about school board elections.

But a sound argument can be made that many more people should care than voter turnout numbers would suggest.

As a general rule, eligible voters across the United States are less likely to cast ballots in elections than those in many other countries. Nowhere is this more true than school board elections in New Mexico, where the turnout is usually in single digits.

Tuesday is school board Election Day in Bernalillo County. Three contested races for the Albuquerque Public Schools board will be decided, as will one contested race for the Central New Mexico Community College Governing Board.

When people care, they are more likely to vote, said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc.

This year, the most visible of the races – hence the one in which voters will likely care the most – is in APS District 2, where Kathy Korte is running for re-election. She has been an outspoken critic of the education reforms put in place by the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez and recently was criticized by other board members for a letter she sent directly to an APS employee.

Her opponent, Peggy Muller-Aragon, is the wife of Robert Aragon, a former Democratic state legislator who in 2011 was appointed to the state Board of Finance by Martinez.

Sanderoff said that race is likely to generate a higher turnout than the others. “Usually, there’s little controversy,” he said, “and voter apathy rules the day when it comes to school board elections.”

He also noted that lower turnout gives more weight to each vote cast.

Other candidates are Madelyn Jones, incumbent Analee Maestas and Colt Balok in APS District 1; and Mark Gilboard, Sina-Aurelia Pleasant-Soul Bowe, Barbara Peterson, Charles MacQuigg and John Lopez in District 4.

The only contested race for the CNM board is in District 6, with candidates Jenny Leigh Lawson-Toulouse and Virginia Lopez Trujillo.

Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver said turnout in school board elections generally ranges between 3 and 3.5 percent of eligible voters.

“First and foremost, having elections when we do is unusual,” Toulouse Oliver said, explaining the low turnouts. “Especially after a very busy election year, voter fatigue could set in.”

Why February?

By law, school board elections must be held apart from others. Toulouse Oliver said that provision harkens back to the writing of the state Constitution in 1910, a full decade before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote.

In drafting its constitution, New Mexico allowed women to vote for school board members, since education long had been a purview of women. But the drafters inserted the caveat separating school board elections from all others. The lasting result, in Bernalillo County, is that the elections occur in early February.

Another reason some nonvoters give is that they don’t have children in school, so they don’t deserve a say in how schools are run.

“I’ve heard this anecdotally, but everyone needs to know how schools are governed and how they impact us all,” Toulouse Oliver said.

Moreover, Sanderoff said, because school board elections are nonpartisan, there is little voter interest in who should represent the electorate on the school board.

Even people in Santa Fe who follow the differences of opinion between the governor and her opponents on education policy – issues such as student test scores and teacher evaluations – may not be engaged enough to care about the different candidates, Sanderoff said. But, he noted, there is always a “base interest” of potential voters, people like teachers and APS employees.

Marty Esquivel, an attorney finishing his second term on the APS school board who is not seeking re-election, also spreads the blame for the low turnout. He recently told the Journal, “It’s not a good reflection on anyone that only 3 percent of our electorate votes” in these races.

Esquivel said he has talked to people who have no idea an election is underway.

In the 2007 election when he was first elected, the official APS turnout was 6 percent. In the Los Alamos election that year, it was more than twice as high at 13 percent, but in the Santa Fe race, a lowly 0.03 percent. That same year, 4.7 percent of eligible voters in Rio Rancho cast ballots, while only 3.7 percent of Moriarty’s voters bothered to go to the polls.

In the 2011 APS school board election, when Esquivel was re-elected, 6,566 people, or about 2 percent of the electorate, turned out. But that extra-low response may have been due, in part, to a cold snap that had gripped the city on Election Day. In 2013, 11,195 people cast ballots in the APS election.

“The great irony is that everybody has an opinion on public education, but 97 percent of the people stay home on Election Day,” Esquivel said.


Voting locations

Here is a list of the voting centers that will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the Albuquerque Public Schools and Central New Mexico Community College school board elections

Adobe Acres Elementary School: 1724 Camino del Valle SW

APS City Center: 6400 Uptown Blvd. NE

Bandelier Elementary School: 3309 Pershing Ave. SE

Bellehaven Elementary School: 8701 Princess Jeanne Ave. NE

Cibola High School: 1510 Ellison Drive NW

CNM Main Campus: 1401 Basehart Road SE

Corrales Elementary School: 200 Target Road

Del Norte High School: 5323 Montgomery Blvd. NE

Desiderio Community Center: To’Hajiilee

Duranes Elementary School: 2436 Zickert Road NW

Eldorado High School: 11300 Montgomery Blvd. NE

Garfield Middle School: 3501 Sixth NW

Hayes Middle School:1100 Texas St. NE

Highland High School: 4700 Coal Ave. SE

Isleta Recreation Center: Building 60, Tribal Road 40, Isleta

Jackson Middle School: 10600 Indian School Road NE

Jefferson Middle School: 712 Girard Blvd. NE

Kennedy Middle School: 721 Tomasita St. NE

Madison Middle School: 3501 Moon St. NE

Manzano High School: 12200 Lomas Blvd. NE

McKinley Middle School: 4500 Comanche Road NE

Montezuma Elementary School: 3100 Indian School Road NE

Oñate Elementary School: 12415 Brentwood Hills Blvd. NE

Petroglyph Shopping Center: 8201 Golf Course Road NW

CNM South Valley Campus: 5816 Isleta Blvd. SW

Rio Grande High School: 2300 Arenal Road SW

Sandia High School: 7801 Candelaria Road NE

Taylor Middle School: 8200 Guadalupe Trail NW

Truman Middle School: 9400 Benavides Road SW

Valle Vista Elementary School: 1700 Mae Ave. SW

Valley High School: 1505 Candelaria Road NW

Van Buren Middle School: 700 Louisiana Blvd. SE

Ventana Ranch Elementary School: 6801 Ventana Village Road NW

Volcano Vista High School: 8100 Rainbow Blvd. NW

Zia Elementary School: 440 Jefferson NE