Traditionally, turnout for primary elections is notoriously low. Primaries allow political parties to pare down their candidates for general elections. Additionally, cities and school districts sometimes use a primary to reduce the number of people running for multiple seats on city councils and boards.
In 2018 and 2020, primary elections attracted fewer than a third of voters who cast ballots in the general election.
So why would school districts place multimillion-dollar bonding issues on the primary ballot? If passed, the vote commits voters to years, even decades of higher property taxes. If the ballot question fails, an opportunity to improve schools is lost.
In the Aug. 9 primary election, four Stearns County school districts – Albany, Melrose, Rocori and Kimball – are asking voters to approve multimillion-dollar building projects.
If history is any guide, these issues will be approved or rejected by a minority of voters – although there appears to be a robust “No” campaign going in the Rocori district that could drive up participation and perhaps sink the issue.
Here are the details of these back-of-the-ballot questions:
The Albany district is asking voters to approve $16.95 million to buy and improve school sites and facilities including renovation of the former hospital for use as an early learning center, construction of a multipurpose space, maintenance, infrastructure improvements, furniture, fixtures, equipment and technology.
Melrose voters are being asked to approve $29.94 million in bonds to build and equip new career and technical education classrooms and labs, build a new swimming pool and other projects including a new gym floor, replace tennis courts and improve the HVAC system.
Rocori school district voters are presented with two questions totaling $72.7 million for upgrades and additions at all the district schools including career and technical education, arts, early childhood education and athletics.
Kimball voters are also asked to approve two ballot questions for almost $10.5 million for a variety of improvements, additions and remodeling.
Putting up ballot questions in low-turnout elections can be risky business because a relatively small portion of the electorate can shape the decision – and maybe that’s the point. Do proponents or opponents hope to energize just enough of their supporters to push the issue through?
Sartell conducted a special election on Feb. 8 asking voters to approve a 1.5-percent increase in the food and beverage tax to pay for parks and recreation. Voters rejected the tax increase by a two-to-one margin but with an exceptionally low turnout. Only 694 voters participated in the special election compared with more than 7,200 who voted in the last mayoral election in 2018.
Would the referendum have passed during a general election or would it have been just as resoundingly defeated? We’ll never know.
School districts and cities should only schedule votes on increasing taxes at a general election when it’s more likely the voice of the entire community will be heard.