Page 3 of the May 17, 2012, edition of the Riverhead News-Review featured a pair of stories about the school budgets passing in the Riverhead and Shoreham-Wading River school districts.
The SWR headline noted that “voter turnout was low” and the headline for Riverhead reported the “lowest turnout since ’99.”
It was the first year the New York State property tax levy cap was in effect, which was cited as a major reason fewer people showed up at the polls.
In the first four years since the cap was imposed, the spending plans in both local districts have been approved each year, which is largely viewed as a positive. But another disappointing and unintended consequence of the cap has been that voter turnout has continued to decline.
In Shoreham-Wading River, 2,647 residents cast ballots in the 2011 budget vote, the last before the property tax cap was approved. Last year, just 1,233 voters showed up at the polls. That’s a 53 percent decline in turnout since the cap went into effect.
The number of people voting both for and against the SWR school budget has dropped every year since 2011.
In Riverhead, where a decline in voter turnout is not as drastic, it is still apparent. Remember that 2012 headline declaring “lowest turnout since ’99”? Well, the number of voters casting ballots dropped again in 2014 to just 2,569 — 1,161 fewer voters than a decade earlier.
There was a slight increase in voter turnout in Riverhead last year, but that is more likely attributable to a controversial turf field proposal than to any sudden interest in the budget itself.
Yet even with a tax cap in place, school districts continue to account for about two-thirds of our tax bill. The expectation should still be that we want to have a say in how that money is spent. Voting on school budgets and school board elections is still our best opportunity to have our voices heard.
Despite modest proposed spending increases, school board races are underway in both local districts.
We encourage each eligible resident to head to their local polling place this Tuesday. It’s time to reverse this unfortunate trend of poor voter turnout.