May 9th, inconveniently placed just prior to Mother’s Day, is Election Day for thousands of political subdivisions across Texas. No, it’s not the Presidential Election. And no, it isn’t an election that draws a lot of media attention.
It’s just the election that determines a tremendous amount of your day-to-day interaction with government. Depending on where you are, there are likely to be school bond issues, city council elections, water district tax approvals, Emergency Services Districts creation elections, incorporation elections, civil service agreements, animal registration authorizations, city charter amendments, school board elections, irrigation district board of supervisor elections, community college annexations, property tax exemptions, county road district elections, local option liquor elections, library district elections, hospital district elections, navigation district elections, freshwater conservation district elections, annexations, deannexations, rate increases, rate decreases, airport management district elections, city referenda, and on, and on, and on.
Although the May election is diminished somewhat of late (because of recent changes in the law and in the management of elections that throttle back on democracy and limit what was once a much more visible and obvious civic event), this election will have a direct and immediate impact on your life. So yeah, it’s important.
Limiting Public Participation In Government
Chapter 41 of the Texas Election Code describes generally how and when elections happen in Texas, more or less. (See, e.g., Section 41.001 of the Election Code).
Except … there are specific, particular laws both within and outside the Election Code that explicitly limit how often elections can happen. County governments can no longer schedule elections in May of even-numbered years. The February and September election dates were eliminated almost a decade ago. School districts have to move their trustee election dates to conform to the election schedules of some other political entity (as a consequence of Section 11.581 of the Texas Education Code, one of the most diabolical and disruptive pieces of anti-school-district legislation of the past decade). To add to the limitations, county election administrators don’t have to help local entities conduct elections in May of even-numbered years, but in the era of electronic voting systems, county assistance is critical to the conduct of local elections.
If I’m going to throw out words like “diabolical” and disruptive” in reference to Section 11.581 of the Education Code, I suppose I owe it to my readers to explain myself.
In the general and special legislative sessions of 2005-2006, the Legislature was once again brought face to face with its functional incapacity to do anything about the abysmal state of public education funding. Finally, in the 3rd Called Session in 2006, the members managed to pass H.B. 1, a massively flawed and vindictive “screw you” public education finance bill that had as its primary intent the stripping away of local taxing authority for school districts.
At the last minute a rider was added to the bill – a floor amendment that drew almost no debate. It specified that school district trustee elections had to be conducted jointly with regular city council elections, notwithstanding (1) the fact that many cities now cancel their city council elections for lack of opposed races; (2) school districts don’t share the same territorial boundaries as cities, and often aren’t associated with incorporated city territories; and (3) imposing city control over school district trustee election schedules is a further limitation of school district autonomy.
The effect of the law was electric – it dramatically disrupted trustee election schedules, delayed elections in many districts, violated the state constitutional prohibition against terms of office being extended beyond four years, prompted years of political wrangling and waste, and accomplished exactly nothing positive. In short, it was a stupid, mean-spirited “fix” of a nonexistent school-related problem that our Legislature seems to excel at. Ostensibly, it was intended to promote “one-stop” voting in order to increase turn-out in school district trustee elections, but practically, it functioned to further limit voter input into the government of school districts.
Speaking of the Legislature, the 2015 general session is winding down towards what looks to be another interminable collection of special sessions. In my next post, I’ll take a look at the “accomplishments” of the House Elections Committee and the Senate State Affairs Committee with respect to election-related laws this session.