Today in Newberg, Oregon, political gamesmanship has been elevated to Shakespeare-level stagecraft. What was once a form of national political drama that we watched unfold from far-away Washington, D.C. now firmly resides even in the tiny corners of Oregon's political field.
As we write this, voters in Newberg are turning in their ballots in a recall election aimed at removing two of the school board members responsible for a ban on "political symbols"—most notably Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols—on school district property. That ban was enacted in August. It was quickly followed by lawsuits alleging that the board had violated public meeting laws, and more lawsuits by district staff alleging that the ban violated their Constitutional rights. In November, the board's 4-3 majority took the unusual step of firing district superintendent Joe Morelock purportedly for not enforcing the ban—a ban that appears to have First-Amendment violations, among other concerns. That was quickly followed by a recall effort targeting the board's conservative chair and vice-chair, whose fate will be decided by voters in this Jan. 18 election.
All this, mind you, swirls around a body of K-12 students in Newberg and Dundee who continue a quest to obtain an education during a global pandemic—and who, by their input at public meetings—overwhelmingly oppose the ban on political symbols in their district.
And the ramifications of this election are having statewide consequences. In hopes of not seeing this debacle repeated, the leaders at Oregon's school boards association and the state school superintendents' association are calling on the Oregon legislature to pass a proposed bill that would protect superintendents from being fired for "taking specified actions against a superintendent when superintendent is acting in compliance with state or federal law." Numerous school leaders around the nation have been fired during this pandemic for imposing mask or other COVID-related mandates as dictated by state or federal laws, so that proposed bill would seek to protect them, too. Yet another proposed bill supported by the two associations would offer more training and oversight for school board members, the Oregon Capital Chronicle reported Jan. 13.
This ongoing saga is engrossing enough to have captured the attentions of many people around the U.S.—but beyond the drama-factor, what bearing does it have for people in Central Oregon?
Beyond the inanity of needing a bill that protects public employees from retaliation for simply following the law, there's the reminder about voter turnout. During the May 2021 election that ushered in two of the four conservative school board members who ultimately voted in the political-symbols ban, the turnout was less than 24%. During the May 2019 election that ushered in now-chair Dave Brown and vice-chair Brian Shannon—both now up for recall—the turnout was just over 17%. Seven. Teen. Per. Cent.
In some of the races, roughly 200 votes separated the winner from the loser. In our electoral system (ignoring the presidential electoral-college system), the person with the majority of votes wins. It's the fairest system we know of—and yet, that system is most fair when people actually turn up to cast their ballots.
Oregon's Motor Voter law makes it easier than ever to vote. Get a state i.d. and you're automatically registered. Then you get a ballot in the mail—and thanks to even more progressive changes during the pandemic, you don't even have to pay for a stamp to send that ballot back.
Right now, Yamhill County is spending tens of thousands of dollars to administer a recall election for two school board members who have allegedly violated everything from public meetings law to the First Amendment. The Newberg School District is also tasked with finding a new superintendent—a candidate search that takes a lot of time and the efforts of a search firm to pull off. All dollars that we think most can agree would be better spent on a child's education.
Regardless of the outcome of the recall, this high American drama is costing money, impacting students and sending a message to elected officials that it's perfectly OK to violate the laws of this land, without much due process, to boot.
These are the dire consequences of a set of low-turnout elections. Like clockwork, we Oregonians have another set of elections coming up this year, in May and November. When that ballot conveniently arrives at your doorstep, fill it out. The cost of not doing so is actually much high than you would imagine.