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GG 8
Combine Uniform Election Days

Summary

Voter turnout has suffered as voters have been asked to appear repeatedly at frequent elections held throughout the year. The state created uniform election days to encourage local authorities to hold only a few elections a year, but current law contains numerous exceptions. Combining uniform election days would reduce voter fatigue and save local governments money.

Background

Even people usually counted among the best informed—active members of community organizations, educators and the like—often are unaware of local elections. Some communities have been subjected to so many elections that they no longer seem newsworthy and fail to attract the voters’ attention. Political subdivisions in Dallas County, for instance, conducted 103 elections over the ten-year period of 1988 to 1998. Although the law is now more restrictive, frequent elections—including elections on non-uniform days—continue to demand voter participation. Former Texas Secretary of State Alberto Gonzales once observed that too many elections cause voter fatigue and confusion.[1] His successor, Elton Bomer, believed that reducing the number of election days would increase voter participation.[2]

Some observers of Texas’ election law believe that some local governments have taken advantage of voter apathy by scheduling “stealth elections” to obtain the outcome they want. For example, bond elections have been scheduled intentionally on inconvenient dates “that only [a] privileged few know about.”[3] In general, the very idea of “stealth elections” seems contrary to the fundamental principles of democracy.

Many courts have addressed the subject of voter awareness in rulings on the necessity of notice. Usually they have ruled that, in the case of general elections, the failure of an officer to give notice of a pending election will not invalidate an election, since voters can be presumed to be aware that an election will be held on the regular date.[4] In the case of special elections—elections not regularly scheduled by the authority in question—some courts have held that strict compliance with statutory requirements concerning notice is a necessary prerequisite.[5]

Texas voter turnout has been extremely low in many recent elections; this may be due in part to the fact that voters are asked to appear at frequent elections throughout the year. The state created uniform election days to encourage local authorities to hold only a few elections a year, but local governments can and often do take advantage of numerous exceptions in the law.

The Texas Election Code provides four “uniform election days” so that voters will not be asked to return to the polls for one election after another. Those four days are set by statute as:

  • the first Saturday in February;
  • the first Saturday in May;
  • the second Saturday in September; or
  • the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.[6]

Political subdivisions may not use the February or September days for the election of officers of cities, school districts, junior college districts, or hospital districts, or for any election requiring a majority vote (with one limited exception).[7]

The statute also provides a major exception, however; governments may hold elections relating to bonds for public schools or colleges on any day if the governing body finds that doing so is in the public interest, and if the government holds only one such special election on a day other than a uniform election day during the state’s current fiscal biennium. The governing body’s finding that holding the election on another day is in the public interest is “conclusive and incontestable.”[8]

Other exceptions are provided for runoff elections, elections held under the order of a court or tribunal, emergency elections and certain special elections held to fill vacancies in the Legislature.[9] Yet another exception is provided for elections held under statutes that expressly provide that the uniform election day requirement does not apply.[10]

In addition, the uniform election day statute does not apply to primary elections and primary runoffs.[11] The Election Code also states that “No other election can be held on the date of a primary election,” a provision designed to prevent the confusion that would result from combining party primaries with other elections.[12]

Joint elections

The Texas Election Code contains ample and flexible provisions for joint elections—that is, elections held by two or more political subdivisions on the same day.

At minimum, joint elections mean that the subdivisions can share some polling places.[13] They also can share the expenses of the election, as agreed to in a joint election agreement.[14] They may also share election officers, such as presiding election judges and clerks, if one subdivision appoints officers already appointed by another.[15] The subdivisions also may combine all of the offices or propositions to be voted on at a particular polling place on a single ballot and provide for those ballots to be deposited in one set of ballot boxes.[16] The forms and records used for all the participating political subdivisions at the common polling place may be combined, and one of the political subdivisions can be appointed as custodian of the records for the others.[17] Finally, the authority responsible for canvassing the results of the election for one of the political subdivisions may be designated to canvass the results of the elections for any or all of the others.[18]

The code, then, gives political subdivisions the flexibility to combine election arrangements to the extent they desire, while reserving crucial parts of the process, such as canvassing the results, to themselves. By combining elections, they may be able to reduce their election expenses considerably, particularly since the compensation of judges and clerks constitutes one of the largest expenses of holding elections.

Eliminating the exception in state law for bond elections and combining the existing four uniform election days into two would encourage political subdivisions to consolidate their elections so that most voters would face only two to four elections (including primaries) every year. This should reduce voter fatigue, increase awareness of elections, improve turnout, eliminate “stealth elections” and save local governments money.

Recommendations

A. State law should be amended to consolidate Texas’ four uniform election days into two.

The uniform election days in February and September should be abolished.

B. State law should be amended to eliminate the exception for bond elections.

The exception can be abused for “stealth elections.” One of the principal reasons for uniform election days was to eliminate such abuse.

Fiscal Impact

In Texas, the only elections held at the expense of the state are primaries. Statewide general elections are held at the expense of the counties, while other elections are paid for by the political subdivision for which they are conducted. Therefore, these recommendations would have no fiscal impact on the state.

Based on data provided by the Secretary of State’s Office, it is estimated that eliminating the exception for bond elections held by school districts and other educational institutions and the consolidation of four election days into two could save local governments and their taxpayers as much as $700,000 to $1,200,000 a year. However, the reported non-uniform election costs on which this estimate is based may include the expenses of elections other than bond elections for educational institutions, and actual cost savings will depend on decisions made by local political subdivisions.


Endnotes

[1]Sam Attlesey, “Election Glut Blamed for Low Voter Turnout,” Dallas Morning News (April 16, 1998).

[2]Juan B. Elizondo, “Texas Needs Fewer Elections to Boost Turnout, Bomer Says,” Austin American Statesman (Nov. 4, 1999).

[3]Sam Attlesey, “Fewer Elections, More Votes?” Dallas Morning News (May 17, 1999).

[4]26 Am. Jur. 2d Elections § 290 (2001).

[5]26 Am. Jur. 2d Elections § 291 (2001).

[6]Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 41.001(a).

[7] Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 41.001 (d) and (e) (Vernon Supp. 2002).

[8] Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 41.001(b)(2) (Vernon Supp. 2002).

[9]Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 41.001(b)(1), (3), (4), (5), and (6) (Vernon Supp. 2002).

[10]Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 41.001(b)(7).

[11]Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 41.001(a) and §§ 1.005(6) & (18) (Vernon Supp. 2002).

[12] Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 41.007(d) (Vernon Supp. 2002).

[13] Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 271.002(a). (Vernon 1986).

[14]Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 271.004 (Vernon 1986).

[15]Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § § 32.001-32.035 and § 271.005(a). (Vernon 1986 & Supp. 2002 ).

[16]Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 271.008 (Vernon 1986).

[17]Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 271.009 and § 271.010 (Vernon 1986).

[18]Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 271.011 (Vernon 1986).