Imagine a school bond or sewer bond election where all the candidates for public office were on the ballot at the same time and weighed in on these issues. Imagine the elections for all these things were held on the same day at the same time and the various conservative, moderate, and democratic candidates took sides and aligned themselves with passage or failure of bonds to build schools, jails or waste treatment plants. Imagine supplemental levies, to allow schools to meet short budgets also became more partisan. Votes on local option taxes for construction of jails. Imagine that sewer elections, school boards, mosquito abatement funding, small taxes for auditoriums, all became part of the same ballot.
Unquestionably it would be easier to go on one day and vote for all of it at once, school board, school bond, supplemental levy, sewers, pest management, library issues etc... But as our system stands now, I rarely manage to ferret out every judicial, county and statewide race that will be on the ballot each primary and general election, much less every one of the various issues that will be decided annually by an election somewhere in my tiny part of the county.
If we held all elections for all the tiny jurisdictions and tiny local issues on two dates, I have no doubt that, even as a voter who works hard to be informed, I will walk into the polling booth and face a myriad of issues I know nothing about, but for which my vote may truly be the deciding ballot cast. I might even be tempted to vote on gut instinct, knowing nothing about the details of a proposal or the candidates and offices at stake. Like anyone, I will do my best, but I will not be an informed voter and in many cases my vote will be cast quite randomly.
Is it a great service to democracy that we have tiny obscure elections held on random seeming dates, where a handful of people show up to vote? I know that there have been some of these I have thought to attend, but in the end did not feel passionately enough one way or another to go to the trouble to participate. I think it is safe to say that I was happy to leave these decisions to those more closely connected to the issues, those more directly impacted.
It is important to note here that the borders of all the counties, school districts, mosquito districts, auditorium districts, urban renewal districts, transit districts, fire districts, water districts and more (the list is really long) overlap in often very complex ways. To hold an election for all these districts at once or even for a few of them at once can mean that ten people living within a quarter mile of each other may get ten very different ballots and have an entirely different set of issues to decide once inside the voting booth.
Imagine all those districts, boards, candidates competing for your attention at the same time. Half of what you might hear by radio, TV, bill board or e-mail might not even be on your personal ballot. Delivering a sample ballot to you so that you knew what would be on your ballot on election day would require as much work for the County elections office as would making sure that you got the right ballot when you came in to actually vote on election day to vote.
All this might be OK, or even really positive if every County had the software, electronic GIS maps, address level boarders drawn for every little district to make figuring out who would vote in each election on election day doable. Sadly Idaho doesn't have such technology or detailed electronic mapping. In fact our neighboring states don't "consolidate" elections in this way either, so it would be a leap of faith to say we would be ready to do this by 2012. But we might be. I don't know. But I do know that yesterday an election consolidation bill passed the Senate, having already passed the House. I can appreciate parts of it but fear how candidates will weigh in on these issues that will now be decided in May and November when partisan races are run. Schools can hold elections on two other dates, for four dates total, which is good. But the cost is more than $4 million, that's enough to have reduced cuts to state employees by more than an entire percentage point, saved hundreds of jobs, or to have ensured that state services to someo of those in need did not decline when many Idahoans needed them most.
In a year when we are cutting budgets so deeply, to bow to pressure from House Republican leaders to undertake such a costly task, one that could wait a year or two, is fiscally haphazard. Even worse, we have obligated funding this project in the years ahead when it will have to compete with other budget needs and when it is uncertain that our economy will be fully recovered.
It is ironic too that this is yet another costly computer system project. Technology projects have pulled in tens of millions of dollars from Idaho's budgets and stimulus funds this year, while we have cut services to people with disabilities, substance abuse treatment and school funding.
Election consolodation is not an idea we are exploring. It is legislation the legislature passed yesterday. All seven Democrats voted against it. It was a proposal House leadership has wanted to pass for years. A way for conservatives in the Republican party to have more control over local issues decided by autonomous local bodies. I am sad to think of some of becoming twisted by association with one party or faction rather than surviving on their own merrits. Be we shall see. I hope this grand and expensive experiment in government is successful, worthwhile and, most of all, nothing to fear.