With headlines dominated by news of 2020 presidential candidates, it’s easy to forget that there are elections happening across the country in 2019. But in fact, 47 states will hold elections this year for 85,000 different positions from governor to city council.
To take one example: school board. Thirty nine states have school board elections in 2019, electing leaders for local elementary, high school and community college boards. A total of 22,000 school board seats are up for election this year. These elected officials will make decisions that directly affect one of the most important issues to voters: the education of their children.
Yet turnout in off-year and local elections can often be in the single digits. A Portland State University study of local municipal elections found that nationwide, fewer than 15 percent of eligible citizens turn out to vote. What’s more, the median age of voters was 57—city residents 65 and older were 15 times more likely to vote than residents between the ages of 18 and 34.
For voters who do show up, too frequently they’re still not faced with a choice. In Illinois, there are over 1,000 school board positions currently up for election April 2. According to our data, 42 percent will be uncontested.
We are both former classroom educators who are now working on aspects of civic engagement that we believe are fundamental to the health of our country’s democracy. Aviva runs BallotReady, a civic venture that informs citizens on down ballot races. Lea runs Allies for Educational Equity, a non-partisan peer-funded (and peer advised) political action committee. We both were inspired to launch our respective ventures by the opportunity we saw to increase civic engagement where it’s most glaringly needed: down ballot.
At BallotReady, we believe effective democracy requires informed voting at all levels of government. Across the country, there are over half a million elected officials, with the vast majority—96 percent—serving at the local level. Yet most people don’t even know who these people are, let alone their background, their issue stances, or their record.
Further, as educators we know that measuring learning outcomes both in terms of growth and in terms of proficiency matter. Growth recognizes the very hard work of students and teachers in achieving gains when, too often, students are starting from behind (due to factors well beyond their control). But, proficiency is also critical: If our students don’t enter adulthood with the minimal basic competencies to engage as productive and independent members of society (college + career readiness, y’all), then we haven’t done our jobs.
It turns out that the “growth” and (in this scenario) “absolute” paradigm applies to electoral turnout, too. If less than 10 percent of a district turns out to vote in a school board election, how is that school board truly accountable to the citizenry to ensure that schools are reaching the needs of every student?
Founding Father James Madison argued in Federalist 52, “The definition of the right of suffrage is very justly regarded as a fundamental article of republican government.” We agree and exhort our peers to join us in recognizing that with that right comes the responsibility to be informed so that when given the opportunity to express our right to vote, we make an informed decision, encouraging and engaging others to do so with us.
Don’t like who’s on the ballot? Next time, consider running yourself. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of folks to vote for, in offices that you didn’t even know exist? Consider resources like BallotReady or your municipality’s electoral guidebook to help you learn. Want to make a difference? Beyond following national politics or volunteering on a presidential campaign, consider getting involved in your community. Local races are often decided by only a couple of votes; relationships between city councilors and their constituents can have a huge impact on their later policies.
As the country gears up to spend the next 20 months debating who should hold one office, let’s not forget the 500,000 other offices that matter—a lot.