Oakland clerk testifies on school election consolidation-- Johnson says bills will save money and improve voter turnout

Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson, a strong proponent of combining school elections with community or state elections, testified before the Senate Education Committee in Lansing last week in favor of a package of bills that would further consolidate elections.

"This is common sense and non-partisan," said Johnson. "Our experience in Oakland County has shown that combining school elections with other elections does work, does save money and does improve voter turnout."

To date, 23 of 27 of school districts based in Oakland County have switched election dates, saving an estimated $600,000 annually--money that can be used to pay for computers, books and to keep teachers.

Johnson congratulated school districts who have already made the switch to combined elections. She said expensive, stand-alone elections simply cannot be justified in this economy. She cited a May 2007 election for a single, uncontested school board candidate that cost taxpayers in that district $40,000.

Combined elections also increase voter turnout. One Oakland County district that combined elections saw their voter turnout jump from 6 percent in May of 2007 to 18 percent in the November 2009 election. Because they piggybacked onto the November election, the school district had to pay no election costs.

Johnson said this legislation will also help prevent "stealth" elections and provide voters with the ability to make a single trip to the polls to cast their ballot.

The clerk acknowledged some school district leaders won't budge, arguing that combined elections would "politicize" school elections or that newly elected members wouldn't have time to "get up to speed" before budget time.

"Those arguments don't hold water and I believe the public is fed up with that kind of thinking and rationalization," Johnson testified.

Johnson encouraged lawmakers during last Thursday's hearing to go one step further by removing the August election date option from the legislation to bring school districts in line with all other general elections in the state held in November. The Michigan Association of County Clerks also supports removing the August option.

"Experience has proven this option gives the greatest likelihood of voter participation and lowest possible cost of the taxpayer," Johnson said. "The fewer election dates, the better. It can get confusing for voters. We have one community in Oakland County that includes seven district school districts. She noted the August option could present technical challenges because the primary ballot is a traditionally longer ballot because of precinct delegate races.

The package of bills considered last Thursday included Senate bills 751, 752, 753, 754, 755, 756 and 802. Committee members did not vote on the bills Thursday.

Published: Tue, Mar 9, 2010