School districts across the state last year used lower-turnout special elections to win voter approval for nearly $2 billion in construction projects and other major purchases instead of presenting them alongside their budget proposals in May, according to a new study by the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany. 

In Big Choices, Few Voices, report authors Charles Dill, Ken Girardin and Ammon Larsen compiled more than a decade of election records, finding that district officials had used “special meetings” more than 400 times since 2011. The data revealed measures were most likely to pass when the fewest voters showed up—potentially giving officials an incentive to schedule them for unusual times. 

“New York has a fabulous system of local control, and more New Yorkers could participate in that system if school districts held these votes in May or November, when people expect them,” said report co-author and Empire Center research director Ken Girardin. “The current system creates too many opportunities for funny business.” 

Dill, Girardin and Larsen identified numerous instances in which school districts held their own votes just days before Election Day in November and cited cases in which school officials appeared to have deliberately avoided presenting questions to voters at scheduled elections when turnout would have been higher. 

The authors noted that school districts are at a disadvantage because they can’t automatically present questions on the November ballot, and recommended that the Legislature grant them that access in return for eliminating special meetings.

The Empire Center, based in Albany, is an independent, not-for-profit, non-partisan think tank dedicated to promoting policies that can make New York a better place to live, work and raise a family.

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