Bond Measures: Voting When the Time is Right
On Election Day, most municipalities would give anything for 70 percent or 80 percent voter approval of a bond or levy. But there’s one election where such a success rate isn’t enough—the council vote that sends the measure to the ballot.
Councilors or board members must understand the leanings of their fellow elected officials before pushing for a ballot measure. A bond measure referred to the ballot by a split council vote is doomed to failure. A 3-2 or 4-1 vote by a county council to send a measure to the ballot sends a clear message to voters: The capital project this bond measure would pay for might be important, but it’s not important enough.
Election law doesn’t allow councils to vote in private ahead of a board meeting to ensure the votes are there for a unanimous public vote. But there are ways councilors or board members can signal their intent before pushing for a ballot measure. They can speak publicly about the need for a facility before the specific bond measure is on the council agenda, or they can discuss its merits in a newspaper interview. If every councilor is making favorable statements—language like “this project needs to happen and it needs to happen now,”—the bond measure’s champion on the council or board can trust his or her fellow elected officials will vote “yes” when the time comes.
In the run-up to a recent bond campaign that I managed in Oregon, all three county commissioners spoke publicly but individually about the need for a new county jail. One of those commissioners was up for re-election, and his opponent spoke in interviews about the need for a new jail. The specifics of the ballot language hadn’t yet been crafted, but each commissioner could discern with confidence that a 3-0 commission vote in favor of the measure was coming, even if one of the commissioners was voted out of office.
To be clear, a unanimous vote doesn’t have to mean that everyone is in unanimous agreement about the proposed capital projects. Maybe Commissioners A and B favor a $30 million option while Commissioner C supports a proposed $20 million option. If Commissioner C believes the $30 million project is better than no project at all, she can vote “yes” on placing the measure on the ballot and then choose not to campaign for its passage. Doing so ensures the public will vote for or against the measure on its own merits, without hinging on an elected official voting in dissent.
There are numerous reasons why a bond measure may or may not be successful. But ultimately, nothing is more likely to sink a measure’s prospects than a split council vote. Councilors who sense that a split vote is coming would be wise to spend their time trying to reshape the capital project or tax plan rather than slog through a campaign destined to disappoint at the ballot. By postponing the vote for a year and investing that time in building council consensus, the project’s champion is much more likely to be celebrating a new capital project on Election Day.
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