School-board election change gets strong support

Ray Carter | February 12, 2024

Legislation to move Oklahoma school-board elections to a November ballot has received strong support from a state House committee.

House Bill 3563, by state Rep. Chris Banning, would move school-board general elections to November, placing them on the same ballot as major state and federal elections such as presidential and gubernatorial races, ensuring far higher voter turnout.

“House Bill 3563 will increase voter turnout and undoubtedly save taxpayer dollars,” said Banning, R-Bixby.

Bradley Ward, the deputy state director for Americans for Prosperity–Oklahoma, urged lawmakers to support the bill, noting that the unusual dates of current school-board elections are a major reason few voters cast ballots.

Although the Lawton school district is among the 10 largest districts in Oklahoma, Ward noted that an April 5, 2022, school-board election in Lawton drew just 191 votes.

“That equates to less than 1 percent of voter turnout,” Ward said.

Ward, who previously served as a program evaluator for the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT), said voter turnout in all school districts holding school-board elections that day averaged less than 4 percent.

The November 2022 elections, which included statewide races such as governor, drew 50.35 percent of voters, and the November 2020 elections, when the presidential race topped the ballot, attracted 69.34 percent of voters.

Research published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University in January 2020 reviewed data from four states, including Oklahoma. Among other things, researchers found that “the majority of voters in a typical school board election in each of the four states we examine is ‘unlikely’ to have children.”

That creates political incentives that may not align with the best interests of students, the report suggested.

The working paper noted that “moving school board elections on-cycle, to coincide with higher-turnout national elections, is likely to significantly boost the political representation of households with children and increase the racial diversity of the electorate.”

In addition, Ward noted that shifting school-board elections to a general-election ballot would save school districts money. Under state law, schools must reimburse county election boards for the cost of elections conducted when school issues are the only thing on the ballot. By shifting school-board elections to a general-election ballot that is aligned with state and federal elections, the state would pay the full cost.

Ward said Oklahoma schools spent $16.8 million on election services in 2023.

“With this change and shift to on-cycle elections, school districts would be able to recapture that $17 million and repurpose it for other student needs,” Ward said.

House Bill 3563 passed the House Elections and Ethics Committee on a 6-2 vote that broke along party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed. The bill will now proceed to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Similar legislation passed out of the Oklahoma Senate in 2023 with strong support.

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) opposed the Senate legislation, claiming, “Voters may be less informed about school board candidates if they appear on a general election ballot.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

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.

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