Education , Law & Principles
Ray Carter | February 28, 2023
Effort to boost turnout at school-board elections advances
In an effort to significantly increase voter turnout and input into local schools, lawmakers have advanced two bills that would shift school-board elections to a November general-election ballot.
“I believe we need to increase voter turnout in school-board elections,” said state Sen. Ally Seifried, R-Claremore. “And we all in our communities recently—two weeks ago—had those and the numbers were abysmal.”
Senate Bill 244, by Seifried, would place school-board elections on the November general-election ballot. The legislation also reduces the length of the term served by a school-board member on a five-person board from five years to four years.
State Sen. Carri Hicks, an Oklahoma City Democrat who opposed the bill, noted that school-board elections were last shifted four years ago.
“Do you feel like this is the right time to make this change?” Hicks asked.
“I do,” Seifried said. “As I just said, we had an election two weeks ago and I’ve got statistics from my district and the needle really has not moved.”
Seifried noted the secretary of her local county election board tried to boost turnout in recent school-board elections to no avail.
“She sent out 27,000 calls for this last election, and we had 519 people vote,” Seifried said.
In contrast to the minuscule turnout in many school-board elections in the spring, November elections typically see much higher voter numbers.
The November 2022 elections, which included statewide races such as governor, drew 50.35 percent of voters. In November 2020, when the presidential race topped the ballot, 69.34 percent of voters turned out.
State Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, noted he previously served on a local school board and predicted that “by moving this election to a regular election cycle it’s going to engage the conversation of education in Oklahoma.”
State Sen. Kristen Thompson, R-Edmond, praised the effort to shorten school-board member terms.
“I personally would like to see all of these terms lowered,” Thompson said. “I think in the life of a student, four years is a massive piece of time. So if we are truly going to move the needle on education, I think we need to have the ability to roll these school-board members off if they’re not doing the best job for the students.”
SB 244 passed the Senate Education Committee on a 10-4 vote.
House members advanced a similar measure a day prior.
House Bill 1823, by state Rep. Sherrie Conley, would move general municipal elections, including school-board elections, to the November ballot in odd-numbered years.
“I hear a lot from voters that they are concerned that we’ve got voting going on in so many months,” said Conley, R-Newcastle. “They would like it streamlined.”
State Rep. Tom Gann, R-Inola, said only three people voted in one of his local precincts during a recent election that included a “major, major bond issue.”
“It was because it was in the middle of February,” Gann said.
HB 1823 passed the House Elections and Ethics Committee on a 6-3 vote.
The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) opposed both bills, saying SB 244 would cause school-board candidates to “compete for time and attention with other general election races” and “discourage good candidates from running for the office.”
The OSSBA also claimed reducing the length of school-board member terms would confuse voters.
“Shortening the term and having two board elections once every four years is likely to cause confusion for voters and may reduce leadership consistency,” OSSBA said.
OSSBA also opposed HB 1823, claiming that moving school-board races to the November ballot could lead to “a less informed electorate regarding school board candidates.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.