Voter turnout plagues Crook’s off-year elections

County pool bond must get majority of voters to be approved

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: April 26. 2007 5:00AM PST

After a frustrating loss by a razor-thin margin in November’s election, the supporters of a new swim center in Prineville reworked their plans and decided to go out for another bond on the upcoming May ballot.

But in the spring election, the measures to build and operate a new pool facility face an additional hurdle: The difficulty of obtaining a double majority in off-year elections.

A provision of the Oregon Constitution requires property-tax measures to both garner more than 50 percent approval and more than 50 percent voter turnout in order to pass. That means that a majority of the registered voters in the Crook County Parks and Recreation District would have to cast their ballots in order for the pool bonds to have a chance.

Trying to get a property tax measure passed under the double-majority rule in an off-year election is an uphill battle in many counties because the elections often do not attract enough voter interest.

Since a state ballot initiative passed in 1996 adding the double-majority rule to the state Constitution, Crook County has almost never seen more than 50 percent voter turnout in off-year elections, County Clerk Dee Berman said.

“I would be surprised if we got a 50 percent turnout (this year),” Berman said.

History of low turnout

The highest voter turnout in a spring off-year election for Crook County overall was in 1999, when 39 percent of registered voters cast ballots. However, an initiative in 1999 concerning the fire district’s tax rate did pass, because just more than 50 percent of the registered voters in the fire district participated.

“If you’re just looking at the people within the fire district, that isn’t a countywide measure, and this (pool) one isn’t either,” Berman said, pointing out that only the 8,000 registered voters in the county’s Park and Recreation District will vote on the swim center bonds. “It’s got to be a double majority of the people that live within that district.”

Berman said there have only been two or three times when a ballot measure in an off-year election achieved a double majority.

Unlike even-year elections, which feature statewide and national races or primaries, off-year spring elections do not traditionally generate as much excitement about voting. Last November’s election, which included decisions on Oregon’s governor and U.S. representatives, saw a 75 percent voter turnout, Berman said.

Crook County is not unique in its generally low voter turnout in off-year spring elections. In the May 2005 election, only 23 percent of Deschutes County’s registered voters cast ballots, according to the Deschutes County Clerk’s Office Web site.

But Deschutes County has achieved more than 50 percent voter turnout in other past spring elections. In May 2001, 56 percent of voters took part in an election that included a Sheriff’s Office levy and a Sisters school bond, according to the Web site. Special off-year elections in March and November have also had more than 50 percent voter turnout in Deschutes County.

For the May election this year, the proposed 911 levy in Deschutes County falls under the double-majority rule.

Jefferson County has not achieved 50 percent voter turnout in an off-year spring election since the double-majority rule has been in place, County Clerk Kathy Marston said. But there have been few years when there were ballot measures that fell under the requirement.

In May 2005, Marston said, the county’s voting rate was 46 percent. That year’s property tax measure, an operating levy for the county jail, failed due to the insufficient voter turnout, even though more than 50 percent of those casting votes were in favor of the measure, according to earlier Bulletin reports.

“Usually the spring election, the May election, is what we call the special district election where the board members for various districts are elected, and oftentimes those positions are not contested,” Marston said. “So a lot of people just simply don’t vote and return their ballot.”

Back on the ballot

Donna White, the chairwoman of the political action committee supporting the pool measures, said the double-majority requirement was a serious consideration when the Parks and Recreation District was deciding whether to try for a bond again.

“We understand that our odds of having 51 percent of the voters turn out aren’t the best,” White said. “The community’s going to have to feel pretty strong about it to make it pass, so I just have faith that a lot of people that didn’t vote (last time) because they just assumed that it would pass are going to get out and vote this time.”

The district’s plans call for a $10.7 million swim center with two indoor pools and one outdoor pool.

In 2006, the measure to build a new pool center failed by a margin of 2,936 “no” votes to 2,774 “yes,” according to the Crook County Clerk’s Office Web site. The first time the question was on the ballot, in 2002, the construction bond failed by 3,452 to 1,647 votes.

One difference with both of the previous elections is that now the measures are not tied together, so that if one fails the other could still pass. The total tax rate of the measures has also been reduced since last November by about 10 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value.

Crook County Judge Scott Cooper said that, even though he would “be pleasantly surprised” if this election sees more than 50 percent turnout, there are good reasons for the pool supporters to put the measures back on the ballot.

“It keeps your profile up – that’s important,” he said. “Let’s assume that it passes but it doesn’t get the majority (voter turnout), then it allows the supporters to go forward in the November election and say, ‘A majority of those who voted said it was a good idea.'”

Exercising voting rights

Cooper said that he thinks the double-majority rule works as it was supposed to – “it keeps taxes down” – and he would oppose efforts to repeal it. Earlier this month, the Oregon House voted to remove the requirement in May and November elections, but the Senate has not taken up the question and the change would ultimately have to be approved by voters.

“I think it gives you political security that when a decision does get made it definitely reflected something that most people could live with,” Cooper said. “For community boosters and people with really good concepts, it can be very disappointing and frustrating.”

Oregon’s voter turnout is generally high compared to other states, Cooper noted, but he called achieving a double majority in a May election a “pipe dream.”

“It’s just unfortunate that people don’t take voting very seriously,” he said. “And usually (in a spring election) the candidates are unknown, the measures are confusing, so there’s just not a lot of enthusiasm for finishing the process and marking the ballot.”

White, the pool PAC chairwoman, said she hopes people will exercise their constitutional right to vote.

“They don’t even have to turn out – they just have to fill in a mailed-out ballot,” White said. “You’re an American, you have the right to vote – use it. Don’t complain about your kids having nothing to do, use your right to vote.”

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