Saturday, May 5, 2007

Reflections on Senators Greenip and Simonaire's petition drive to place HB1114 on the ballot

There is an old saying, "never say never."  I genuinely thought that my last post on the school board reform legislation would be my last, at least until the School Board Nominating Commission was implemented.  I knew that a petition to put HB1114 on the ballot was under consideration.  But I didn't take it seriously.   I was wrong.


Senators Greenip and Simonaire have now created an organization, Citizens for an Elected School Board, to get signatures for a petition to put HB1114 on the ballot in 2008.  To get on the ballot in 2008, they need 10,000 Anne Arundel resident signatures by May 23 (less than three weeks away) and another 9,000 by June 20.   Senators Greenip and Simonaire have widely e-mailed a letter regarding the petition and their new organization to County opinion leaders.


Citizens for an Elected School Board describes its mission as follows.


Citizens for an Elected School Board was formed in April 2007 in response to legislation passed by the General Assembly which significantly reduced citizen participation in the school board selection process in Anne Arundel County.


Currently, the organization is focused on gathering enough signatures in a petition drive to give citizens the final say over a school board selection scheme which all but eliminates citizen input in the entire process and turns control of the school board over to a handful of county special interest groups.


I'm not clear how serious Senators Greenip and Simonaire are about this initiative.  It's one thing to file a petition and send out a news release.  It's something very different to do the hard grunt work of getting 19,000 people to sign the petition.    The former is a good and inexpensive PR move when you're in the opposition.  The latter involves blood, sweat, and tears--all for a very uncertain outcome.     Having looked at their classy website and seen their e-mail  campaign, I'm now inclined to believe they are more serious than when I got the first e-mail from them a week ago.    According to their website, they went door-to-door last weekend and intend to go door-to-door again this weekend. 


I support the petition to put HB1114 on the ballot, but not for the reasons laid out by Citizens for an Elected School Board.  Citizens for an Elected School Board links their petition drive to support for an elected school board, but I think the issue of electing a school board can and should be separated from giving the public an opportunity to debate the merits of HB1114.


I'm not necessarily opposed to an elected school board.  I do oppose the type of non-partisan, winner-take-all (also known as first-past-the-post) electoral system that has been proposed.  Another pet peeve of mine is the overwhelming focus  on the design of the general election as opposed to the primary, which I tend to view as at least as important as the general election. 


From my perspective as someone trained as a political scientist, I believe there is a reason why only authoritarian systems have single party, non-partisan electoral systems.  The public has been trained to hate partisan behavior and applaud non-partisan school boards, but mass democracy requires parties; without them, you tend to get the worst type of special interest politics, especially in low visibility elections in large political districts (like we have in Anne Arundel County). 


Winner-take-all electoral systems predominate in the U.S., so most Americans think of electoral systems and winner-take-all  voting rules as synonymous.  But proportional representation systems actually predominante in the rest of the world and have even been used in some large school districts in the U.S.  Whatever the virtues of winner-take-all for most U.S. elections--and the virtues of winner-take-all are great--they are arguably weaker in a large, diverse, school system with multi-member districts (such as in Anne Arundel County).   In a winner-take-all system, minority interests--whether they be ethnic, geographic, socio-economic, or otherwise--are less likely to get a chance at represenation than in a proportional system where voters express rank order preferences for candidates and minority interests can get a fairer chance of representation.  Fairness, by the way, is a precise, technical term.  It refers to the degree of correspondence between the preferences of voters and candidates elected to office.  The higher the correspondence, the fairer the election (for a discussion of these concepts, see  The way the electoral issue has so far been framed, only an appointed system can ensure a diverse school board with representation of minority interests.  But that is based on an incorrect assumption that equates winner-take-all with all electoral systems. 


Still, I don't think even a conventional proportional electoral system is the best system.  As you may know, I favor a "citizens assembly" based system; that is, a statistically representative version of the school board nomination convention that we already have. 


But whatever type of electoral system  you might ultimately prefer shouldn't determine whether you support this petition.  The value of this petition, from my perspective, is that it would force a public debate on HB1114's proposed system of selecting school board members.  That's a debate the legislature should have had but didn't. 


After all, our leaders have repeatedly said that passing HB1114 was one of their most important accomplishments during the last legislative sesssion.   Given this apparent consensus about the bill's importance, a full and open public airing of the issues was the democratically appropriate course of action.  Since our leaders abrogated their democratic responsibility to hold such a debate, I support this petititon because it will force such a debate.  At the end of that debate, the public might decide that the legislature actually did its due diligence and picked the best feasible alternative.  But I don't think we can know that until both the legislators and public have exposed themselves to some divergent points of view. 


Thus, I plan to sign this petition and would encourage you to sign it, too.    Senators Greenip and Simonaire have put together an excellent action center for this purpose.  I'd encourage you to look at it if you want to support their petition.


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