The problem with unanimous votes – (G.W.)

Published February 21, 2012 by justicewg

The Grandview school board has a long history of unanimous voting. Often years will pass between split votes. This story from 2006 looked at some of the problems with the way the board votes.

“The March 29th TVN ran a story about the school board completing three years of unanimous votes. It’s good to see that the local papers are finally taking notice of the issue, but I can’t say that I was very impressed with the reporting that was done. There were some obvious questions that were not asked, allowing the story to become for the most part a PR piece for the Grandview board (and they completely missed the issue of the board stealth raise).

Here are some of the questions I would have asked.

The board has determined that unanimous votes are the best way to run the school board. Can the board point to some other board or city council in central Ohio that also votes this way? Can the board point to any research that shows that unanimous voting is the best way to run a board?

The board says that it is careful listen to community input, and to schedule extra meeting for controversial issues. Can any board member tell us that as a result of listening to community input they changed their mind on a major issue, and their vote?

Heydinger is quoted as saying that low turnout at board meetings means that the community is “not unhappy” with board decisions. How does he know this? It is also possible that the low turnout is because the public feels that they have no real influence on the board, and attending meetings is a waste of time. Does the board have any interest in finding out if the community feels that they can change the minds of the board (by doing a survey)?

Heydinger is also quoted as saying he reads every board document carefully and knows what he is voting for. McLeod in her e-mail said that Heydinger probably didn’t know that he voted himself a raise in January. Which is true? If the board did know what they were voting for, why didn’t they announce the raise?

There are a bazillion pages on the web that contain the words “unanimous voting study” Try google scholar, that gave me some good hits. The problem is that unanimous voting can be a completely different issue depending on the context – a jury has different motivations than a club, elected officials are different than community groups. This is probably an issue that a serious expert should answer, but failing to have one on call, I tried to muddle through the internets.

The question to be answered is, does a unanimous voting agreement produce better public policy?

This Journal of Politics study is not fully online, but the first page is presented. The study showed that judges are more likely to vote unanimously as a result of political pressure – they don’t want to be singled out because of unpopular decisions, even if the vote goes against their own values.

It’s pretty common sense stuff – why would the board members make themselves a target by allowing the voters to see a difference between the board members? When everyone votes the same, the whole board tends to be perceived by the voters as a block.

There was some perceived differences between members in the voting result of the last board election – Heydinger got a few hundred more votes. McLeod and Keller were almost identical though – unanimous voting worked for them.

The problem is that we don’t vote for candidates so that they will vote unanimously, we vote for individuals so that they can use their own values to vote their own conscience.

(There is a whole derail that involves political parties, and the expectations for party loyalty, but I hope that is not an issue in Grandview board elections. Ugh.)

The reply from the board members who were re-elected last November will be that the voters did know that all board decisions would be unanimous, and that Grandview knew what it was voting for.

I think that this vastly over-estimates the attention that Grandview voters pay to the elections – I think that the majority did not know they were voting for a unanimous board. Unless the issue involves money, most voters don’t pay attention. I also think that Grandview voters don’t vote so much on issues as they do on personal relationships – they vote for their friends, or the friends of their friends. It’s high school elections all over again.”

3- 2006


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