Voter turnout in Benton County

By T.A. Barnhart of Corvallis, Oregon who describes himself as a "active dem, band parent, poet-philosopher, deanista, dodgers fan, and i love good italian cheese."

I know I should simply be glad about the outcome, but I'm not. The bigger picture worries me too much.

On Tuesday, Benton County voters elected two Democrats and a progressive Green to the Corvallis School Board; the one conservative that even had the will to run, lost. This is a good thing. The school board will be in very good, and strongly progressive hands, for at least the next two years.

But only 22% of those eligible to do so voted. Six months ago, 89% of us sent in or dropped off ballots. This is a huge dropoff, and not to be taken lightly. It's even more worrisome given what a huge role the board has played in shaping the future of Corvallis-area schools. A teachers strike was narrowly averted recently, and many residents saw the School Board as being more at fault than the teachers. In last fall's election, a continuation of the existing school levy was defeated; that school board's lackluster, inept campaign on behalf of the levy doomed the measure (they truly pulled a Kerry on that one).

Electing a strong, responsible school board was the highest order of this ballot, and the two open races placed strong options before the voters. Yet over three-quarters of the Benton County electorate decided to skip this one. Only a few months after we heard the stories of how Iraqis risked their lives to vote, 78% of Benton County voters could not bother to mark a few ovals, seal and sign an envelope, and spend 37 cents on a stamp. I can think of all kinds of reasons why this would happen, and every single one is only an excuse., and a damn lame one at that.

Did the huge turnout last November only indicate how strongly Oregonians felt about the president, marriage equality, and land rights? Did it have nothing at all to do with democracy? This is what worries me so much. The point of the exercise is not to get a certain person in office, or force laws to conform to your personal preferences. The point is that we live in a democracy. In a democracy, the most basic act is voting. When we vote, we cast our ballots not for people or ballot measures; we cast out vote for our system of government. Democracy.

I'm glad we elected some good Dems (and a good Green) this week. It's too bad we failed our larger purpose. We have a lot of work to do to preserve our country, and it's not a good sign if we can't do the simplest thing of all: vote.


  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I think you are making too big of an issue about this voter turnout.

    First, please note that you are mixing up Benton County voting versus Corvallis. I doubt that all Benton County voters vote in the Corvallis School Board election.

    Second, in Corvallis, you have lots and lots of college students. Did they care about the Presidential election - yes. Do they care about the local School Board - no.

    Third, these elections don't get the press, yard signs, and public interest that we see in general elections. Always has been, always will be.

    Fourth, and isn't it a shame! Too bad we don't see 95% voter turnout with every election. As we watch the neo-cons take over our government, probably hoping to never give it back to the people; they are banking on the apathy of the people.

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    22% was for benton county as a whole. in harrisburg, 8 people voted for 2 positions on the school board. this is the democracy we cherish so much?

    there's no excuse for this. it's not insignificant. with the wrong school board, we could be in the middle of the teachers strike we almost did not avert. these 7 people have a huge responsibility that extends to the entire community and the future of the county. for people to yawn and pass on their civic responsibility is inexcusable. i'm not sure how i can make too big a deal of this.

  • engineer (unverified)

    Yes, it's a shame more people dont vote, but on the other hand, if they're not motivated enough to use a pencil and a first-class stamp, then it's probably safe to assume they're not motivated enough to study the issues and candidates-I'd rather they not vote in that case anyway!!

  • Pete Jacobsen (unverified)

    I think it is virtuous of folks to skip voting if they do not know the positions of the candidates, and it is not at all easy to know what to think of people running for school board.

    First, school board elections are a very small part of the world we must consider: other local issues, state issues and candidates, federal concerns (have you called Gordon Smith yet today?) and larger (is the situation in Sudan improved?) all claim our time. There are little things like work and family as well.

    Second, it is non-trivial to find out candidates' views on school issues. We all daily criticize the local papers - surely you don't want me to trust what they say? Even if I did, the media gives very little space to school board elections unless there is some issue they consider hot.

    My experience as a voter and as a past school board candidate (elsewhere) is that the two biggest factors in who is elected are what position the name is on the ballot and what occupation the candidate lists.

    Should the author of this article wish to do something really constructive about school board elections, consider putting together a list of questions and getting each candidate to commit to an answer to the questions. I'm sure the candidates will give you the pure yes/no answer you want! I don't see any easy answer, but I don't blame folks for not voting.

  • Ruth Adkins (unverified)

    Isn't there a voters pamphet with candidate statements? That only takes a few minutes to read. Many candidates have websites with further info.

    I agree with Todd, school board elections are significant, and we shouldn't let people off the hook for being too lazy to vote. Democracy is not a spectator sport. Here in Multnomah county I think less than 20% bothered to vote in our school board race. Yet the city is going to rise or fall based on the quality of our schools.

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    i am a member of the benton county dems "public school support" committee, and we met with all 4 candidates in contested campaigns. we interviewed them and shared our findings with party members (and anyone else who asked). i'm also a volunteer at my son's high school as well as in other areas of life around here.

    what's truly disappointing is the situation here in corvallis (particularly). we almost had a strike and we lost our funding levy primarily because of missteps by the current school board. in this election 4 of the 7 positions were open; only 2 were contested (an appointed incumbent ran in one, and a high quality dem in the other). this community cares a great deal about education, and i can't believe people don't know how important this election was. there were plenty of opportunities to learn about the candidates, and we have the world's easiest voting system!!

    so to get a lame turnout like this disheartens me. we have a ton of work to do. we can't assume good turnouts next year; we have to make them happen. if we don't, our democracy will be further eroded. we just can't let that happen.

  • LT (unverified)

    Should the author of this article wish to do something really constructive about school board elections, consider putting together a list of questions and getting each candidate to commit to an answer to the questions. I'm sure the candidates will give you the pure yes/no answer you want! I don't see any easy answer, but I don't blame folks for not voting.

    Here in Salem we knew we would have 4 new school board members because of those not running for re-election.

    I went to a local forum (City Club event shown on CCTV the local cable access channels)and was impressed with all the candidates (some more than others). The questions asked of them were not simple yes/no questions. They ranged from questions about budget committee and reserves, to dealing with administrators, to school board members visiting schools rather than paying a communications manager, to how they would deal with controversies like bilingual education and creationism. Too bad we don't hear more such serious discussions of education from legislators!

    There wasn't the high turnout of a Nov. general election, but there were many people at the forum and many had lawn signs in their yards.

    Due to events in this district in recent years, this wasn't a generic school board campaign--lots of people had lots of questions, and the candidates spoke in detail at the forum.

    We had a remarkable group--too bad some of them couldn't be in the legislature as they have more of a clue about communicating with the public than some House members--and I think we should be proud of the quality of candidates we had this time. 3 of the 4 I voted for won, and there is nothing wrong with the person I didn't vote for. They will all bring a breath of fresh air to a school board which had become fossilized.

  • Terry (unverified)

    Low voter turnout in local elections (I think Multnomah County had a 17% turnout) only confirms what has been apparent for years: the closer the governing body is to the voter, the less the voter knows about it.

    It's too bad, because decisions made locally have a far greater impact on us than almost anything that happens in Washington. That's especially true of education.

    The only remedy, as I see it, is community activism. That, and harassing local media outlets to do a better job of covering local issues, the ones that matter.

    The good news is that a Green Party candidate now has a soapbox and a potential springboard to higher office.

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    ruth, no there was no voter's pamphlet. the gazette-times had materials, but the onus was on candidates to get their names out.

    <h2>you have to understand, i was in the middle of the fall campaign and i saw so many people dedicated to that cause. the passion and energy were remarkable, and to then have a turnout of 22% just makes me wonder what those folks thought they were actually working for? i think i see both ends of the spectrum here: the way people will give so much for a cause, and the need to get more people to understand that the cause goes beyond a war or a president. local politics is just as important, but few share that belief. yet.</h2>
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