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EPISD rejects plan to elect trustees by plurality vote, which would have ended runoffs

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El Paso Independent School District trustees on Tuesday narrowly rejected a move to switch school board elections from majority to plurality vote.

The change would have done away with runoff elections, which trustees Daniel Call and Bob Geske say are costly for the district and burdensome for candidates.

In plurality voting, the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether that person receives more than 50% of the vote. A runoff only occurs if there is a tie.

Trustees voted 3-3 to put an item on April’s meeting agenda to discuss and possibly adopt the plurality system. Because there was a tie, the motion failed.

Trustee Freddy Klayel-Avalos joined Call and Geske in voting to place the item on April’s agenda, with trustees Josh Acevedo, Diane Dye and Al Velarde voting against doing so. Trustee Chuck Taylor was absent.

Daniel Call

“When I ran for trustee, I just saw the toll the campaign takes on a family and on a candidate, especially for a position that’s unpaid,” Call said before the meeting of his 2019 campaign for the District 7 seat, which represents the Coronado High School feeder pattern. Though he didn’t face a runoff, two other races weren’t decided that May.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, the leaders of EPISD’s largest employee unions spoke in favor of majority voting.

“Democracy is a burden,” El Paso American Federation of Teachers President Ross Moore said. “Whether you’re having to go vote, or whether you sign up to defend the democracy of your country, there are burdens and responsibilities that come with it.”

Plurality voting makes it harder for voters to remove “a bad trustee” and increases the likelihood that someone “not in touch with the majority of their district” is elected, Moore said.

Single-member school district elections in Texas are by statute decided by plurality voting, though the Texas Education Code gives districts the ability to use majority voting. EPISD has used both systems over the years.

Both Call and Geske, who represents District 1’s Bowie and El Paso High School feeder patterns, say runoff elections are costly for the district, especially given low voter turnout, which only drops when races go to a runoff.

The June 2019 runoff for Acevedo and Klayel-Avalos’ seats cost an estimated $105,000, nearly equal to what the district spent on the May 1 election, according to archived board meeting agendas. About 2,600 people voted in the June 2019 runoff, or 5% of registered voters. Together, those races garnered about 2,000 fewer voters than in May.

It’s likely multiple, if not all of the races, in this May’s election will be decided by a runoff, Geske told El Paso Matters.

The District 1 race drew four candidates, the District 3 race has three candidates and five candidates filed for both the District 4 and District 5 seats. Geske is not seeking reelection for the District 1 seat, after holding it for two terms.

Had the board approved the switch to plurality voting, it wouldn’t have gone into effect until the May 2023 election, when Call is up for reelection. Call said Tuesday he doesn’t plan to seek a second term.

Socorro ISD, El Paso County’s second-largest district, uses plurality voting. Ysleta ISD, the third-largest district, uses majority voting.

The Texas Association of School Boards could not be reached to provide information on the number of districts whose elections are by plurality rather than majority vote.

In addition to being less expensive than majoritarian systems, plurality systems help alleviate voter fatigue, said Todd Curry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“The more elections you have in a given year, in a given cycle, the less likely people are going to show up to vote, just simply because they can’t follow; their minds are focused on many things, of which politics is just one,” Curry said.

But plurality elections can be problematic, he cautioned.

“We have this concept that candidates or incumbents are representatives of the constituency that choose them,” Curry said. “Well, in plurality elections, that constituency can be a minority of the population,” which can discourage people from voting in future elections.

In 2019, Eddie Mena won a four-way race for a Socorro ISD trustee race with 38% of the vote.

The plurality system also advantages incumbent candidates who benefit from name recognition and requires voters to be strategic when casting their ballot.

“If a voter goes into the voting booth and knows what candidate they prefer, they can vote for that candidate. But for an individual to cast a ‘fully cognizant vote,’ they also have to know all of the other candidates and they also have to know what their sort of electoral fortune is,” Curry said. That requires substantial knowledge about the candidate field, something many voters may not have.

In a majoritarian system, voters cast a ballot for the candidate they support. If that person doesn’t make it to the runoff — if there is one — voters have time to decide which candidate they want to support in the next election.

Both voting systems ultimately have flaws, Curry said. He favors single transferable vote or ranked choice systems.

The Texas Election Code does not allow for either system for local elections. State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, is trying to change that this legislative session. She filed Senate Bill 537 seeking to allow counties, cities and school boards to opt in to a ranked choice voting system.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify how trustees voted.

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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