The issue of partisan school board races is back on the table. House Bill 324 and Senate Bill 650 would require school board candidates to designate party affiliation on the ballot. I believe this legislation is a step in the right direction.
Currently, state law mandates that school board elections be non-partisan contests, but there are exceptions to the rule. According to a guide (PDF) published by the N.C. State Board of Elections, 17 of the state’s 115 school boards elect and/or appoint members by political party. They include Alleghany, Anson, Bladen, Brunswick, Duplin, Winston-Salem/Forsyth, Graham, Greene, Harnett, Jones, Lee, Lenoir, New Hanover, Swain, Vance, and Washington. Guilford will begin conducting partisan elections in 2016.
Some argue that party designations will increase the likelihood that voters will cast a vote for a candidate on a down-ballot race. I suspect that they are right. I do not believe, however, that boosting participation is the most compelling reason for conducting partisan school board races. Informed voting is much more critical.
Party labels are useful sources of information for voters. For high-profile races, this is not necessarily a concern. In these cases, voters are inundated with details — although sometimes inaccurate or misleading — about candidates courtesy of ads disseminated on television, radio, mail, and social media. But low profile, down-ballot races generally attract fewer dollars and less interest from the mainstream media.
Ideally, voters would compensate for this absence of information by taking the time to research candidates’ experience, voting records, public statements, and the like. But we know that they don’t. There is little incentive for them to do so. The typical voter knows that his or her vote is one among thousands or millions of votes cast and thus will have little effect on the outcome of an election. Simply put, the cost of obtaining information far exceeds its perceived benefit. This is known as rational ignorance.
Partisan elections do not solve the problem of rational ignorance but may help uninformed voters be a little less ignorant when casting their votes. Party designations indicate a candidate’s general approach to governance, policy formation, and problem solving, information that the rationally ignorant voter would not otherwise possess. Obviously, no candidate adheres to a party’s platform on all issues and at all times, so party labels do not provide perfect information to voters. Surely limited information is better than no information at all.
In the absence of party labels, voters will use some other, arguably inferior, criteria to vote for a down-ballot candidate. These include ballot order, gender, race, ethnicity, novelty, "eeny, meeny, miny, moe," kinship, and name recognition. The 2014 NC Supreme Court race between Sam Ervin IV and Robert Hunter was a good example of using name recognition in a nonpartisan race. Many native North Carolinians associate Ervin’s name with his grandfather, Sam Ervin Jr., the popular Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate for 20 years and famously chaired the Senate Watergate Committee. Ervin’s name, not his judicial philosophy, likely gave him just enough of an advantage to defeat Hunter in what was otherwise a toss-up.
Others contend that party labels are bad because partisanship is bad. They believe that public schools are a place where the community comes together, regardless of ideology, to improve the lives of children. Kumbaya! But their claptrap ignores one basic fact — communities are not homogenous. Well-intentioned folks disagree on the best way to improve the education of public school children. And, for better or worse, their opinions about education are usually aligned with political parties and other partisan entities. Why else do we often attach party labels to school board members who are elected in nonpartisan contests?
The irony is that partisans are often the most vocal champions of nonpartisan elections, because they benefit most from the absence of party labels. Concealing party affiliations increases the electoral prospects of candidates who do not hold views consistent with the majority of those they would represent. For those candidates and elected officials, ignorance is bliss.
Acronym of the Week
NCSBE — North Carolina State Board of Elections
Quote of the Week
"Making school board elections partisan will not make all school boards perfect. It will, however, give the voter some idea where the candidate stands on broad issues such as spending and accountability."
– Bryan Shoemaker, "The case for party labels in school board elections," Statesville Record & Landmark, Thursday, April 2, 2015
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