The thought of elections in Ohio conjures images of the crisp autumn days of a general election, or the rainy spring mornings of a primary election, and lots of advertisements (lots and lots and lots of ads).
Although the ads have already started, the average voter will not be focused on the election for another few months. Many Ohio voters, however, will be expected to vote on issues between now and the general election and this has a number of often overlooked, yet important, policy implications.
On August 7, special elections will be held in thirty-five counties across Ohio. The August special elections will decide sixty issues, almost all of which are tax increases. The tax increases range from an income tax increase of .5% in Shaker Heights, to property tax increases for public services, and school levies.
School levies will account for a majority of the tax issues on August ballots. Thirty-six of the sixty scheduled issues will be related to school funding, most of which are tax increases. State Impact Ohio provides a searchable list of the August school levies. As the Columbus Dispatch observes, Ohioans have not seen this many tax levies in a special election since 2005.
Special elections are notorious for their low turnouts and unpredictable results. For example, Mount Healthy had 3,329 of 4,695 total registered voters cast a ballot in the 2008 November general election. A vote for a replacement and increase levy for street repair and construction however, drew only 324 voters to the polls in an August special election in 2010. The Strongsville City School District, with a total population of 44,048, saw 11,133 ballots cast to decide the fate of a new school levy in August 2011. The voters of the city of Strongsville cast 25,965 ballots in the 2008 general election. [All numbers from the Ohio Secretary of State]
These examples are typical of experiences throughout the state. As the Ohio Association of Election Officials makes clear, special elections in Ohio commonly see a voter turnout below 25%.
This means that an absurdly small portion of the local electorate often decides tax levies.
In addition to the traditionally low turnout, special elections cost money. The entity requesting the special election, either the political subdivision or the school district, must cover the cost. The Ohio Secretary of State estimates a special election costs $1,026 per precinct.
According to that estimate, a smaller suburban community, like Shaker Heights with 36 precincts, could incur a charge of about $37,000 for one special election.
Proposed legislation in the Ohio Senate would limit levies to primary and general elections. The legislation, Senate Bill 284, is sponsored by Senators Kris Jordan, John Eklund, Nina Turner, and Edna Brown. The proposal would cut the number of opportunities for a political subdivision or school district to place a levy on the ballot by half. It would not prevent a political subdivision or school district from trying again in the next election if a levy fails.
Local governments should not use special elections as additional opportunities to pass levies while the electorate is largely tuned out. If local government officials believe extra revenue is necessary, they should place a levy in the spotlight of a general or primary election. Hopefully, the introduction of Senate Bill 284 will jump start a discussion on ways to protect taxpayers from a virtual bombardment of levy proposals in special elections, funded at their expense. It is certainly something Ohio taxpayers should keep in mind as special election season approaches.