The No. 1 reason Mead and Central Valley school district officials think their capital improvement bonds failed Tuesday: the economy.
“I had dozens of discussions with people who have talked about many things that they are dealing with as far as (economic) issues,” said Thomas Rockefeller, Mead’s superintendent. Ben Small, Central Valley’s superintendent, echoed the comment.
Passing a bond during times of high unemployment already is a challenge. Now, experts say there’s another element affecting special elections: vote by mail.
“I think the vote by mail has changed school elections,” Small said. “You see a higher percentage of people who say no.”
Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political science professor said, “Vote by mail doesn’t have much impact on the major elections, but in those little elections it does. The main thing is age. You are making it easier for the older folks who would normally vote.”
A study of Oregon voters – which has used mail-in balloting exclusively since 1993 – found that on local issues, the amount of voter participation went up 26.5 percent in the vote-by-mail system compared with traditional elections. In Spokane County, turnout went from about 35 percent to 50 percent when it changed to postal voting.
Spokane County switched exclusively to vote by mail in 2005, so those who run bond and levy campaigns for schools are still learning what works.
“In earlier days, you could target the voters who voted frequently and not target the infrequent voters,” said Kerry Lynch, who has run school bond campaigns for three decades. “Vote by mail eliminates that.”
Lynch did not work on the Mead and Central Valley bonds, but she ran Spokane Public Schools’ 2009 bond campaign.
“In vote by mail, you don’t get to target your ‘yes’ voters. We had to look at the whole voting universe,” Lynch said. While Lynch thinks vote-by-mail is one reason the bonds failed, she too says the economy played a large role. “Bond levies, right now, people feel it’s something extra they don’t have to pay for,” she said.
Small and Rockefeller were disappointed about the bonds failing, but not completely surprised.
Although multimillion-dollar bonds for Cheney and Medical Lake passed in February 2009 despite an economic downturn that began in 2007, Rockefeller, the Mead superintendent, said he thinks the longer the economy has struggled, the more frightened people have become.
“I’d imagine we won’t take another proposal out to the community for several years,” he said. For now, “we’ll fix what is broken the worst and move on from there.”
Central Valley has not passed a bond since 1998. The district has gone to the voters three times since then. Support has waned in each vote, from 57 percent down to 47 percent in Tuesday’s vote.
Small said voters’ rejection this time cannot be tied to one factor. “We have to look at all reasons,” he said. The district has to have “open-mindedness to moving forward.”