To follow up my previous post on House Bill 589, the election reform bill most known for its voter ID provision, the current version also includes a provision affecting when local governments could set special elections.

As Barry Smith reports in Carolina Journal today, the bill would also

[r]equire local special election dates to coincide with state, county, or municipal general elections, except for elections related to the public health or safety, or municipal incorporation. Specified recall elections would be allowed on other dates also, as would new elections ordered by the courts or State Board of Elections.

This reform would remove a sneaky tool in local governments’ tax-raising kit. A county or municipal vote held in “off” times poses an additional time cost to prospective voters. It results in a much smaller turnout (sometimes in the single digits, in terms of percent of registered voters participating). Those who do turn out, however, tend disproportionately to be the ones who would benefit from the tax increase, which would affect everyone in the county whether he voted or not. Holding the special election in the summer, when many voters not in the know are more likely to be away on vacation, is a way to be embellish this effect even further.

So a local referendum to increase taxes is more likely to pass when held on a “special” date, one that doesn’t coincide with state and national elections that draw more voters.

JLF’s City and County Issue Guide 2011 explained:

As part of a 2007 deal that swapped sales tax revenue for Medicaid payment obligations, counties also received the right to seek approval from their citizens to impose a new tax. The tax could be either a 0.25-cent increase on the 2.0-cent local sales tax (6.75 cents total) or a 0.04-percentage point increase on the 0.02-percent tax (to a 0.06-percent tax) on land transfers.

Sixty-five counties have sought one or both tax increases since 2007. Before giving up on the land-transfer tax in early 2009, counties invariably chose whichever increase had the higher projected revenue even though the land-transfer tax increase never won in 23 attempts. Voters rejected a sales-tax hike 57 of 69 times it was on the ballot during a primary or general election. County commissioners have won sales-tax hikes seven of nine times a vote was held at other times, including a May 17, 2011, vote in Cabarrus County that had a 3.5 percent turnout.

The guide included this handy visual of the effect (click on the graph for the full size):