June 21, 2018
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Are school budget referendum votes a waste of time and money?

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — The 524 Bangor residents who voted for the 2011-12 school department budget of $41.6 million this week represented by far the lowest voter turnout in recent memory.

Bangor has approximately 22,000 registered voters, which means only about 2.4 percent showed up. If it costs about $8,000 for the city to administer an election, it cost Bangor $15.27 per vote.

That voter apathy trend continued throughout the state.

In Brewer, only 163 votes were cast Tuesday, equivalent to about 2.2 percent of the city’s 7,135 registered voters, and the clerk there called turnout extremely poor. In Ellsworth, 118 out of 5,479 registered voters, or about 2.1 percent, weighed in on the school budget.

Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said school budget validation votes historically have seen low turnout — usually between 2 percent and 8 percent — especially when the budget is the only thing on the ballot.

In 2005, then-Gov. John Baldacci championed a controversial law to consolidate school districts across the state. Around the same time, a law was passed requiring school budgets to be approved in local referendums, and every three years voters would be asked if they want to continue with the local school budget referendum.

Since voter approval of school budgets was made mandatory, turnout on those votes has been minimal. In nearly all cases, the small number of voters approve school budgets, usually by a comfortable margin.

Interestingly enough, though, when municipalities have the chance to keep the budget referendum process in place or do away with it — which is allowed every three years under state law — cities and towns almost always vote to keep the referendum.

Traditional turnout for a non-November election in Bangor is anywhere from 5 to 10 percent, according to the City Clerk’s Office. In November elections, turnout can be as high as 75 percent, and in June primaries turnout is usually around 20-25 percent.

About a month ago in Bangor, during a special election in which Bangor residents approved construction of a $65 million arena and convention center complex in Bass Park, turnout was at 25 percent, although that was considered high.

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