New Jersey's experiment in moving school elections from April to November seems to have worked well. Early reports from last week's contests show that the number of voters weighing in on school board elections was way up, in some towns double the usual turnout.
School elections have generally had very low participation rates. Most draw about 10 percent to 15 percent of eligible voters. Some districts record voting percentages in the single digits.
Many people have argued that with such low turnouts, school election results aren't really representative of a community's wishes. The small numbers mean that special-interest groups can have a disproportionate influence on the results.
Earlier this year, about 85 percent of the state's districts chose to take advantage of the opportunity to move voting from April to the November general election. The law allowing the move was intended to save election costs, which can be a big deal in small districts. As an incentive, districts that moved to November elections will no longer have to submit their budgets for voter approval, as long as they keep tax levy increases below 2 percent.
Opponents of the move worried that mixing school elections with municipal, county, state and national votes would bring politics into school board races. A report coming in December from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission will detail spending in school board elections, which should give an indication of how political the races became.
But the move apparently increased the number of people who voted for school board members and the questions that were on several school ballots, even though not every voter made it to the bottom of the ballot.
An estimated 60 percent of the state's registered voters cast ballots last week, drawn by the top-of-the-ticket presidential contest. In some districts, only about half of those voters made choices in school elections, but that was still a much larger total than these elections usually draw.
Some observers are concerned that school elections can get lost amid the publicity surrounding the big races. And it is true that school board candidates or districts trying to sell spending measures will have to find a way to compete for voter attention with big-spending candidates for other offices.
But drawing attention to school elections has always been a challenge (hence the traditionally low turnout). At least now school board candidates don't have to worry as much about getting voters to the polls - and can concentrate instead on getting them to read the entire ballot.