Don E. Lifto Springsted Inc. Retired Superintendent

A community’s vote can be linked to three numerical notions — scarcity, absence and opposition

Chicago’s classic hit “25 or 6 to 4” spent 20 weeks on Billboard’s Top 20 in 1970, later becoming a favorite for school marching bands from Maine to California. While 20 weeks is impressive given the legendary rock ’n’ roll acts performing back then, it pales in comparison to how many times over the years the group’s leader, Robert Lamm, was asked to explain the meaning of his lyrics.

Speculation ranged from a secret code for LSD to a rhetorical response to a question posed in the title of another recording: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?” Lamm clarified the actual meaning of “25 or 6 to 4” much later, but that’s for you to Google if you are curious.

So what does “25 or 6 to 4” have to do with the numbers driving the outcomes of school elections and the notions of scarcity posed in the subtitle of this article? The short answer is that, not unlike Chicago’s lyrical puzzle, school tax elections have their own numbers represented by “15 or 20 to 25.” Understanding the meaning and impact of these numbers is crucial within the broader context of composing and executing a successful tax election. Their significance of “15 or 20 to 25” can be linked to three words — scarcity, absence and opposition.

Demographics of Scarcity: 15-25 Percent

One of the bedrocks of partisan politics — historically taking the form of a cardboard box and 3×5-inch recipe cards and only recently aided by computers — launched the campaign plan on the foundation of a registered voter file. How many registered voters live in the jurisdiction that will elect the next governor or decide whether to approve issuance of debt for a new school? How many are Democrats compared to Republicans? What’s the count by gender? Young versus old? How many voters can be counted on to show up and which ones will go to the polls only if drawn by the drama of presidential politics?

In planning school tax elections, the demographics of scarcity depicted by the 15-25 percent reference relates to the number of parents as a percentage of all registered voters. In most school districts, registered voters who do not have children enrolled in the local public schools outnumber parents by about a 4:1 margin — a daunting reality of scarcity in terms of the school district’s core base, accounting for only 15-25 percent of registered voters.

Unless your school district is an exception — and there are not many — the campaign plan will need to develop multiple strategies to blunt the reality of starting behind. At the same time, the campaign must include strategies for mining sufficient “yes” voters from other demographic groups within the school community.

Demographics of Absence: 15-25 Percent

The demographics of absence unfortunately build on the first point, essentially creating a “double whammy” of scarcity. This further erodes what started as a proportionately small core base of natural supporters.

In explaining absence in this context, the problem for school districts is both ironic and an inconvenient truth: Parents don’t vote! They don’t vote! Honestly, parents (especially young parents) just don’t vote! A useful analytical tool to use after a school tax election (win or lose) is a post-election analysis, or PEA. A post-election analysis can be done after the government authority has updated records from a district’s voter file following an election.

The purpose of a PEA is to quantify the participation (and conversely the absence) of key demographic groups within the school district. What percentage of women voted compared to men? How old were the voters? A PEA also can examine turnout by school attendance area, zip code or census block. The demographics of absence come into play dramatically when parent participation goes under the microscope. Unfortunately, but consistently, the turnout among 18- to 40-year-old parents in non-presidential elections typically runs in the same range — 15-25 percent.

The reality of these numbers requires multiple strategies that incorporate historical turnout patterns into the projections of likely “yes” votes from the parent base, but also implementing strategies to mitigate this unwanted absence pattern.

Don Lifto worked on a bond referendum with leaders in the North Branch, Minn., district, that supports Project Lead the Way, a STEM curriculum in elementary schools.

Demographics of Opposition: 15-25 Percent

“Read my lips — no!” would be both accurate and more colorful in characterizing the meaning of demographics of opposition. In hundreds of scientific, random-sample feasibility surveys over time, one of the probes commonly used in phone interviews asks respondents to react to a statement: “I would not vote for a tax increase of any kind, in any amount no matter what the money was used for.” Voters are presented with a five-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”As the reader might have inferred by this point, the 15-25 percent range comes into play again, representing the typical range of voters who agree with the statement. Taking the midpoint of this range, one in five voters is basically in the “lost cause” column before the first note is played at the campaign’s kickoff rally.Oppositional forces — whether in the form of a paid “vote no” consultant, one individual on a mission, a loosely affiliated group of voters opposed to the school district’s proposal or a highly organized and funded “vote no“ campaign — present significant challenges for successful school tax elections. It is incumbent upon school leaders to thoughtfully evaluate the likelihood and strength of potential opposition and harness research and best practices to blunt the damage to the campaign as it unfolds.

Developing Strategies

Understanding the numbers and their implications for school tax elections is the first step in preparing for a successful school tax election. Like the music fans of Chicago in the 1970s, probing the meaning of the “15 to 20 to 25” is an essential understanding. Similar to the 3-by-5 index cards of yesteryear, it is incumbent on school leaders to do the analytics locally to more accurately quantify the demographics of scarcity, absence and opposition. If your district is not an exception, you should anticipate that the campaign will need to grapple with these demographic realities and implement strategies to grow the base of “yes” voters from other targeted groups within the community.Fortunately, technology and access to sophisticated databases provide new and better ways to uncover pockets of support thus far unknown or underutilized. Two types of such files available to school leaders include demographic and predictive databases.Demographic databases provide supplemental data about voters, including information such as phone numbers, household income, education level, length of time in the community, presence of children and housing status. Predictive databases analyze and quantify dozens of voters’ characteristics to identify who is more likely to support progressive ballot proposals, including school tax elections. Both types of electronic files can be acquired and appended to the registered voter file to help develop a target structure for your campaign.If a scientific, random-sample survey is used as part of the planning process, annotating the registered voter file with supplementary databases of these kinds allows for better confirmation of what types of voters are more supportive of the school tax proposal based on the survey results and provides the needed data to better refine the list of likely “yes” voters.These annotated files also can be loaded into sophisticated geovisual mapping platforms such as GuideK12 to provide the school district and campaign with a powerful planning tool to geographically locate and communicate with targeted subsets of voters.The challenge for school leaders — in the context of the “15 or 20 to 25” campaign lyric — is to first quantify and understand the implications of these ranges of scarcity and then harness research and best practices to the campaign planning and execution. By doing so, these numbers can add up to a winning formula for a successful school tax election. •

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