Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tax Levies and Voter Turnout

In the days before this year’s school budget vote, reporters all over the state kept asking, “What impact did the tax cap have on this year’s budget proposals?”  After the vote was over and 96.5% of the budgets in the state had passed, including 99% of the budgets that were at or below their permissible levy limit, reporters then asked, “Did the tax cap affect this year’s vote?”

Now that the data is in, it is possible that one of the ways the cap affected the vote was quite different from what state leaders anticipated.  Looking at Monroe County, it appears that the introduction of the cap resulted in many people deciding not to vote. 

Slightly over 3,000 fewer people voted here this year compared to last.  But it isn’t just that fewer people voted; it is notable which voters chose not to.  Many fewer “no” voters went to the polls. There were 2,130 fewer “no” votes compared with last year; 70.1% of the votes cast were affirmative votes.  Is this a coincidence or something else?

In 2003 over 50,500 people voted on our member districts’ budgets, very much in contrast to this year’s 29,169 voters.  A review of that decade’s statistics reveals a steady reduction in voter turnout even though the plurality of “yes” votes has remained relatively constant.  Over the ten years the plurality of “yes” votes has fallen below 60% (58% in 2010) only once and climbed into the 70% range twice (75.6% in 2009, 70.1% in 2012). In the remaining seven years “yes” votes averaged 64% of the votes cast.  There have been only 4 defeated school budgets over this time period out of 180 separate district budget votes. 

What is the relationship between strong support for education yet eroding voter turnout?  One explanation is that discontent is more motivating than satisfaction. In our region “no” voters have to be aware that, given the infrequency of failed budgets, they are mainly voting to make a statement.  If they are not compelled to make a statement and so don’t vote, turnout will be affected and that certainly seems to have happened in Monroe County this year.

One can surmise that many “no” voters stayed home this year because they believe the state’s cap on school tax levy increases addressed their oft-articulated concerns.   But with the cap just in its first year, what explains the previous years of falling voter turnout?  Perhaps the trend can be explained by looking at what voters were voting on.

In the first four years of this time period, when voter turnouts still averaged over 48,000 people, proposed levy increases averaged over 4.5% per year.  Voter turnout was falling during this period but only slightly. 

Then in 2007 the proposed levy increase dropped to 2.75% and voter turnout dropped 28%!  In the years since then both the number of voters and the size of the levy increase have closely correlated, with voter turnouts dropping almost every year the levy increase was small.  

The one exception to this trend was in 2010, the year state aid was deeply cut after being frozen the year before.  Schools were forced to make major budget cuts and countywide the proposed levy increases averaged only .09%.  Voter turnout jumped by 32% that year, probably to make a statement to Albany.  But that year was atypical in many ways.  Voter turnout fell again the next year, dropping by 21%. 

Of course, at the district level there are exceptions to these generalizations. Strongly contested school board races bring out more voters, as was the case in the only two local districts that had more voters this year than last.  Hot local issues can also increase turnout. 

Nevertheless, at least here in Monroe County, the trend is clear.  Lower increases in the tax levy mean successively fewer people are likely to come to the polls, and the ones that do will be predominantly “yes” voters.  Unless another issue motivates voters, the tax cap may unintentionally promote lower voter turnout

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