Manny Crisostomo /

Bee file, 2012. Observers line up Thursday behind Sacramento County elections officials, from left, Registrar Jill LaVine, Diane Jones and Heather Ditty as they verify ballot signatures.

Sacramento-area school board races vary widely in voter participation

Published: Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Saturday, Jul. 13, 2013 - 2:28 pm

As ballots continue to be counted, a trend among local school districts appears to be holding – voter participation in school board races varies drastically from one area to another.

In Natomas and San Juan Unified trustee elections, more than 40 percent of people who cast ballots either skipped the school board race or did not use all three of the votes available to them. Election officials refer to this as an undervote.

Sacramento City and Elk Grove school districts recorded much higher voter participation, with an undervote of 20 percent to 25 percent.

Why the discrepancy?

Some candidates point to each district's voting method as a potential factor.

"It's a matter of democracy and being adequately represented," said Natomas school board candidate Karen Bernal, who in the most recently released election count is 297 votes behind Scott Dosick for the third seat in Natomas Unified.

Bernal said the high undervote makes her argument that the north area school district should consider trustee area elections over its current method of at-large elections so voters feel a stronger connection with their representative.

"I don't think the community is being served (the current) way," said Bernal. "It makes campaigning difficult. We have a much larger universe to reach."

Both Natomas and San Juan use at-large elections in which voters living in the school district cast votes for all available trustee seats.

In trustee area elections, which are used by Sacramento City Unified, the district is broken up into areas in which voters cast one vote for a board member from their general area. Elk Grove Unified uses a hybrid model in which school board members must live in one of seven trustee areas, but residents in the district vote for all available trustee seats.

"Part of the undervote are people who weren't reached by candidates," said Dosick, a business owner in Natomas and first-time school board candidate. "We are on the smaller side of school districts, but it's a very large district to campaign in. I knocked on doors constantly and only spoke to a small percentage of voters."

Dosick said he was interested to see the high number of undervotes in Natomas Unified, but he said he doesn't entirely attribute them to the district's election method. He said there are other factors to consider, including the percentage of renters vs. homeowners, percentage of households with children, the long ballot and whether there were busy precincts with long lines.

In the 2010 and 2008 elections, the undervotes percentages in the Sacramento City, Natomas and Elk Grove districts were similar to this year's totals. San Juan Unified had an even higher percentage of undervotes in 2010 and 2008 when 50 percent – or 364,000 votes – went uncast by people who voted in other races.

In Tuesday's election, there were 150,000 undervotes in San Juan Unified and 22,000 in the smaller Natomas district.

Sacramento City Unified trustee Patrick Kennedy, who won re-election Tuesday, said he doesn't see a correlation between undervotes and district election methods. He said that in Natomas, the undervotes are likely a sign of mistrust.

"In Natomas, it was a nasty race and people are discouraged about their schools because of the controversy they've had," Kennedy said.

The issue of trustee area elections has been debated by many school districts, particularly in recent years after San Francisco civil rights lawyers began suing school districts, and winning.

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area has sued and threatened to sue school districts and cities under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, which prohibits at-large elections if they dilute the voting influence of minority groups.

"I think there are pros and cons with both models," said San Juan Unified trustee Larry Miles, who did not seek re-election. "The concern I have with the trustee model in school districts is it permits school board members to worry about only the schools in their districts."

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