Monday, May 14, 2012

Democracy, or What?

It's just a little local election, but...

A quick follow-up to my weekend post about the local bond election here in San Antonio. All five bond measures passed, all by comfortable margins. That's not of much interest outside the area, I wouldn't think. But what you might want to know about is the voter turnout: a whopping 6.7% of eligible voters. That's how the local newspaper worded it; I'm not sure whether that's out of all registered voters, or includes those who would have been eligible but didn't register. At any rate, about 40,000 votes were cast in a city of some 1.3 million people.

Exactly how does that sort of thing advance democracy?

The funny thing is that compared to some of the monstrosities found, for example, on California statewide ballots, these local bond issues are reasonably straightforward and easy to understand for voters who don't want to dedicate their lives to it. And there's an argument that ballot questions make more sense in city-sized polities (although perhaps not as large as San Antonio) but not with larger electorates, where representative institutions make more sense. But all of that seems rather pointless if basically they hold elections and no one shows up.

I have no idea about this particular situation, but I mostly assume that the circumstances that lead to very low turnout races (nothing of note on the ballot, an unusual Saturday election instead of the normal Tuesday) are deliberate: the people who put these things to the voters know that the most habitual voters support them. Again, no idea of whether it's true or not for this particular case.

The whole thing just seems really silly to me. I'd much rather just have the elected officials take responsibility for governing, and risk defeat if voters don't like what they're up to. I really have no idea at all what the history of bond elections is, but I have to say that I don't see the point, and apparently most of my fellow citizens here don't either.


  1. May depend on the government structure. But the issue is not the participation in ordinary times, but the potential for a peaceful rebellion. I well remember many years ago when my father was head of a school board and needed approval on a bond issue to expand the school to serve the boomers. That was hotly contested and barely passed. Yes, the voters could have thrown the rascals out at the next election, but they'd still be on the hook for the bonds.

  2. You are probably right about the efficacy of these kinds of elections. Based on personal experience, however, I can tell you that for people who have a stake in the outcome, these elections can be nerve-wracking.

    Tomorrow is the annual rite in New York State, where voters in school districts across the state will be approving their annual budgets for the next school year. I don't know what the average turnout is for these things statewide, but I do know that in our district we have been averaging between 20 and 25 percent turnout of registered voters for these elections over the last ten years. This is also when school board members are elected. You should know that in most local districts outside the big cities school board members are not paid. In the 10 years I have been paying attention to these things, we have had two contested elections - both times 3 people running for 2 seats.

    Oftent times these votes aren't that critical, since, depending on the district, the impact of a no vote may not be significant. State law provides that if the voters disapprove a budget, then a state mandated budget kicks in with caps on the permitted increase over the prior year. Last year, the budget proposed in my school district was actually lower than the automatic budget that would have kicked in had the proposed budget been voted down.

    This year, however, the stakes are higher. This is the first year under the property tax cap that was enacted in Albany last year. The bill caps property tax increases at 2 percent, unless a supermajority of 60% votes to exceed the cap (there are exceptions to the supermajority rule - tax increases for capital projects don't have to get a supermajority for example). The kicker is that if the budget goes down, then the property tax is frozen at the prior year's level. Given that there are contractual increases in place for employees that exceed 2%, plus other costs going, just meeting the 2 percent cap will result in personnel reductions in most school districts. For some it could be worse. In my district, cutting the tax increase from 1.9% as proposed to 0% would mean about $1.5 million in revenues. That's about 15 teachers, on top of cuts that are already proposed. District administrators and personnel are on pins and needles waiting to see what happens tomorrow.

  3. I have heard from people who would seem to know that it is a matter of credit ratings. The ratings agencies expect that a certain amount of a local governments debt will have been approved by the voters. I don't have the numbers in front of me but I think it is less than 50%. Cities regularly issue bonds which have not been approved by the voters and as a legal matter could issue all of their debt that way.

  4. Voting is goofy; if you decide not to show up, there's no change in outcomes. It's one of the many reasons why a rational person doesn't become too excited about voting and why politics is inherently vile.

  5. Based on my misspent youth covering county agencies, townships, villages, school districts and a bunch of other local agencies for the local papers, I would say that the larger problem here is the complexity of local government -- too many different boards, taxing authorities and decision-making bodies whose jurisdictions overlap in all kinds of confusing ways. Not even the officials themselves can keep up with it all; I once wrote a story correctly predicting that the county, the city, the port authority and the state aviation department were all going to end up suing each other (with some taxpayers paying the bills of two or more sets of opposed attorneys) because one of those offices had overlooked another's legal notice about a proposed runway extension at the local airport. Putting a bond issue on the ballot at least has a chance of drawing a particular matter to the voters' attention. I agree that it would be better if more of these questions were left to elected representatives, but to make that work, you would need to reorganize local government, eliminating a lot of these special-purpose districts and creating mini-legislatures with general powers, a la the Congress or state legislature, and with boundaries that corresponded to entities that citizens knew themselves to be living in (meaning villages and cities; most people don't know from "townships" and couldn't tell you the extent of their school districts or other taxing entities).


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