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Bill at state capitol would put school elections at same time as others

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Lawmakers in the Oklahoma House of Representatives are once again looking at a bill that would move school board and bond votes to the same election dates as partisan races for President, governor and Congressional races.

A similar bill failed last year because it also moved municipal elections to be more in line with partisan elections, but House Bill 3563 by State Representative Chris Banning (R-Bixby) only honed in on school board and school bond elections this time.

“This bill will increase voter turnout and save money,” Banning said during a Monday committee meeting.

The argument for changing school board and bond election dates is that voters are a mix of tired and confused by having these elections take place in what can seem like random times outside of other political issues. There is also low interest because while the issues are important, they often don’t generate a flare or appetite for some to get as involved with. For example, Tuesday Feb. 13 has many districts asking voters to weigh in on their future, but that is the only thing on the ballot.

“One of the top ten school districts by size, Lawton Public Schools, they recently had a general election on April 5, 2022 with a total vote count of 191 votes. That equates to less than one percent of voter turnout,” said Dr. Bradley Ward, state deputy director of American For Prosperity, who gave testimony in support of Banning’s bill.

Last year when the issue was debated, it was pointed out that at one precinct in Rogers County only three people showed up in a single precinct to vote on school-related issues, and it was felt that those poll workers babysat an empty room and machines for 12 hours.

Changes to school-related issue elections have received push back in the past from districts and the state school board association itself. They argue that their issues could be easily drowned out by partisan races and other issues if they are lumped in with more hotly contested issues.

State Representative Mickey Dollens (D-Oklahoma City) who sits on the House Elections Committee said he’s heard concerns that the non-partisan nature of school-related issues could be tainted by political parties if they are forced to compete for voter attention at the same time.

“I could easily see some of these non-partisan school board members get up on stage with some of these hyper-partisan candidates to try to get more people to vote for them and get more access to fundraising resources,” Dollens said.

Democrats are expected to once again oppose the bill because they believe national hot button issues should not be anywhere near school board and bond elections.

“One of the great things about our local school board elections is that they are non-partisan. You’re really voting for the candidate over the party, and talking to people, that’s what they’d like to get more to. Tell us about your ideas not what you’re against. It’s not your platform or your national platform. It’s what’s your ideas,” he told FOX23.

Banning said he brought the bill up this session after hearing concerns from parents who were not happy with how their local public schools were being operated, especially when it came to these elections and board races.

“They told me they wouldn’t oppose me, but they also weren’t going to openly support me either,” Banning said when asked if he spoke with the superintendents of the districts his area covers.

The bill passed along party lines 6-2, and it heads to the full Oklahoma House of Representatives for a vote.

“I believe we’ve worked out a lot of things, and this is the year it will finally pass,” Banning said.

Even Republican members of the House Elections Committee seemed to be concerned about the rise of straight party ticket voting. Some were concerned that people would check a box for a party, and the voter would feel like their work is done, when in reality, it is just getting started. With the way HB 3563 is written, the non-partisan school-related elections would be on a separate ballot voters would have to fill out separate from partisan races.

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