Delaware’s surprisingly low turnout for school board elections [video]

When it comes time to cast ballots for school board and tax referendum elections in Delaware, voter turnout is minuscule, a WHYY analysis has found.

WHYY’s findings, which are highlighted at the bottom of this story:

• The 50 contested school board races since 2012 have drawn an average of 1.8 percent of a district’s registered voters. The range was 0.3 percent to 10.6 percent.

• Turnout to decide the 38 tax referendums to raise money for a district’s operating expenses or construction projects averaged 11.8 percent. The range was 4.8 percent to 22.2 percent.

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Those figures for school elections pale in comparison to the general elections since 2012.

The presidential elections of 2012 and 2016 both attracted 65 percent of Delaware’s registered voters, records show. The 2014 general election drew 35 percent.

Those figures — 1 in 50 people deciding school board races and barely 1 in 10 ruling on tax hikes — are a major concern for many in Delaware, which will hold school board elections for seats in 11 school districts on May 9.

“Across our state and across our district it’s just low and sadly so,” said Elizabeth Paige, board president of the Christina School District.

“I don’t know if it’s apathy or that people aren’t aware of the impact school boards have on their lives and communities and don’t engage in the process.”

Bebe Coker, a Wilmington community activist who has spent countless hours in recent years trying to convince people to vote in school elections, said it’s been a tough sell.

“It might be our fault, when you really think about,” Coker said or herself and other education advocates. “Those of us who are aware of the importance of school boards, maybe we don’t make the pitch like we should.”

Both Paige and Coker, who appear this week on WHYY’s First program this week, believe that more people need to get engaged to select the most qualified board members so schools can improve and get the proper funding so students can prosper.

School board seats are unpaid posts, but members decide on spending, operational, disciplinary and other issues. School taxes comprise about three-fourths of a Delaware homeowner’s property tax bill, so increases can be costly. 

When WHYY decided to examine school election turnout this month, reporters turned to school district and elections officials. They knew anecdotally that turnout was weak but couldn’t quantify the problem.

WHYY asked for the data to calculate the turnout percentage, and Department of Election officials provided the results of the 88 school elections over the last five-plus years, along with the number of registered voters for each district.

Eighty-seven percent of Delaware adults are currently registered to vote, according to election records and census statistics. While people not registered to vote can go to the polls in school elections, very few do, records show.

Elaine Manlove, commissioner of the Delaware Department of Elections, was astounded by WHYY’s findings.

Told that turnout for school tax referendums was 11.8 percent, Manlove replied: “That’s deplorable.”

Then a reporter informed her that contested school board races drew just 1.8 percent.

“Get out,” she said. “I didn’t know it was that bad.”

Reactions of other officials, who estimated the turnout was much higher, mirrored those of Manlove, though others would not comment publicly.

Manlove said that beyond being a problem for representative democracy, the issue is a costly one because elections officials spend about $40,000 for each tax referendum, which often involves more than a dozen polling places. School board races are a little less expensive, because fewer polling places are usually used, she said.

“We have to throw this big party, whether they come or not,” Manlove said. “We still have all the work to do and if nobody shows up, it’s pretty bad.”

To see whether a school board election is scheduled for your district on May 9, check the Department of Elections web site. Then click on your county – New Castle, Kent or Sussex – and find the link to school board elections.

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