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Why Jefferson County School Board Elections Get Fewer Votes

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Test scores, taxes, layoffs, or scandals—these are some of the hot issues that can draw attention to school board races on the ballot.“A lot of people have no idea of the raw emotion that can result from some decisions that board members make,” said Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, which has tracked school board races for years.“Many people will let that go, but many people carry that into the ballot box.”The decisions school boards make affect long-term community issues, like the economy and health. The Jefferson County Board of Education also oversees the biggest budget in Louisville—in fact, it's one of the largest budgets in the state. Still, those facts haven't historically grabbed voters' attention. Whether or not you have a child in public school, public education is arguably one of the most important community issues cities face.Yet, when the estimated 65 percent of voters show up Tuesday, they’re more likely to cast votes in Metro Council races than in school board contests.The Jefferson County Board of Education oversees a $1.3 billion budget—second only in Kentucky to state government itself. And the seven JCPS board members are responsible for more than three times the number of constituents than any single Louisville Metro Council member.But unless you follow public education, this might not mean much to you at the polls.“These are what we call low information elections,” said Laurie Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville.“The Senate is high information. It gets a lot of news coverage. It’s got the ads on TV.”To get their messages out, school board candidates instead rely on flyers, yard signs, and canvassing; sometimes there are public forums.

But local and national media devote more coverage to high-profile political horse races—like the U.S. Senate battle between Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.That’s also the race that will be at the top of the ballot, which in Jefferson County is two full pages: one of the longest ballots Rhodebeck has seen in the 16 years she’s been voting here, she said.This leads to a phenomenon called “roll off,” which means voters may give up and not complete the ballot, said Rhodebeck.“Some of it is fatigue. People have a limited amount of patience for voting on multiple offices. Some of it is lack of information,” she said.In various online sample ballots, school board candidates are located on the first page but toward the bottom—and in many cases they’re last.Plus, school board races are nonpartisan.Theoretically this is supposed to keep politics out of school boards, said Rhodebeck.But if people decide to “straight-ticket” vote—meaning they cast a vote for a party and don’t bother to complete the ballot (Kentucky is part of a small handful of states that allow this)—that could affect the number of votes for school board, too.The last time candidates ran for the four Jefferson County school board seats up for election this year was in 2010. Nearly 80,000 votes were cast. Percentage-wise, that’s well below the number of votes that were cast in that year’s Metro Council races, which was around 120,000 votes.So a lack of high-profile controversies and information can drive down the number of votes in school board races. So too can the fact that young people, who have the most recent experience with the education system, tend to have lower voting rates than older residents.When he sought the District 2 school board seat in 2012,  David Jones Jr. canvassed for those who were likely to show up.“I didn’t sort by party. I didn’t sort by issue. It was only based on: were you going to the polls,” said Jones, who won the race and currently sits on the Jefferson County Board of Education. “And young people don’t go to the polls very often.”The 2012 election didn’t see much of an increase. But the larger number of candidates who have participated in the last two school board elections is positive, he said.“Clearly a number of people understand how important the schools are,” said Jones.Also, as higher education has become increasingly expensive, Jones believes that public schools offer unique opportunities—like dual credit courses—to save time and money that would otherwise be spent on tuition.This election, three of the four Jefferson County school board races are contested (Diane Porter, the incumbent running in District 1, is running unopposed). Related: Takeaways From the Jefferson County School Board Candidates ForumSeveral school board candidates have said they decided to run this year following astate audit that called attention to district oversight and spending. Others have mentioned taxes, charter schools or other types of change.The interest in public education is a good start, said Jones, but voters—even those without children—have to make the connection between their community and public education.“It’s clear to me that schools and the quality of their graduates has as big an impact as the quality of life in Louisville as the Senate," he said.There is a lot of opportunity in public education. And also a lot at stake, he said.