Columns for The Lufkin News

Reflections on the May 5th Election

Posted May 13, 2018 by Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

On May 5, 2018, the citizens of Angelina County had the opportunity to participate in what is arguably the bedrock activity of our democracy: a free and fair election. This election was not, some might argue, as significant as one involving state or national representatives. And voter turnout was certainly less than would be expected for those elections. However, approving a $70 million bond issue and electing leaders of multiple educational institutions – with combined budgets of well over $100M and employing nearly 3,000 people – is not insignificant.

The various independent school districts in Angelina County are quite used to running elections. Angelina College, on the other hand, had not had a contested election for 22 years. They pulled it off admirably. But let’s be honest. This set of elections was not perfect. There are things we can do better next time.

One criticism that was leveled at both the LISD bond and Angelina College elections was a lack of transparency. I suppose this allegation is leveled during every election, especially the national ones. Whether or not voters have not only adequate information but honest information about the issues (or people) involved is always in question. With the LISD bond vote, some voiced there was not enough lead time between the announcement of the bond proposition and the actual vote, and not enough information about how that overall decision-making process came about. However, I strongly feel the LISD board, administration, and others did a great job of educating the voters about the needs. You couldn’t live in Lufkin and not be aware that the bond issue was on the ballot. And you certainly couldn’t have had a child at the Middle School in the last 20 years and not been aware of the critical state of that campus.

The transparency criticism of Angelina College was more vague. I did hear it rumored that Angelina College wanted to become a 4-year university (and the implication was that by doing so the needs of the local population would be ignored). Nothing could be further from the truth! Angelina College has amazingly broad educational offerings for students from all walks of life. That is not about to change. But where rumors exist, there is an opportunity for education. 

One recent example may serve as a model for the future. Angelina College welcomed a number of people who came to one of our board meetings (which are always open to the public) when the board toured the Technology Workforce Building. Board members and visitors alike were very impressed with the quality and number of programs offered. This type of “open house” may be a good way to showcase periodically what Angelina College has to offer to our community. 

Another idea brought up during the election during a town hall meeting in North Lufkin was to have town hall-type meetings from time to time as a way to gather community input and to keep the community informed about what is happening at Angelina College. That is not a bad idea.

Angelina College President Dr. Michael Simon has become well known and quite visible in the community and has made inroads and contacts throughout the county. This visibility and approachability – not just of the AC President, but also of the Board – is key to maintaining strong community relationships as well as a vital way to address questions about the direction of the college.

By far, however, the biggest complaint about the election process this year was about lack of publicity, whether TV or newspaper, especially in the days leading up to the election. It seems everyone was looking for last minute information about where to vote. Examples abound of people who voted early in one election but still needed to vote in another, and where do they go? To the LISD Administration building? Slack? Angelina College? To another school district altogether? And early voting in two different locations with different hours of operation was confusing as well. Voters were counting on the local news media to make sense of a very confusing, complicated election. The news media largely failed. 

Yes, this newspaper provided some voter education about the candidates several weeks prior to the election, but the mechanics of the election itself were largely ignored. One article on Tuesday, April 24, 2018 mentioned that early voting was underway, and discussed where early voting for various races was taking place. Beyond that, and especially close to the election, there was nothing. Television coverage was conspicuously absent as well.
That being said, the number of voters participating – nearly 3,000 voted in the LISD bond election and nearly 2,100 in the Angelina College election – shows that off-year, local elections are important to the citizens of Angelina County. Compare that to the Nacogdoches ISD board election, where one candidate won by a vote of 246 to 104.

Going forward, we must not take our democracy for granted, even in the “less significant” or off-year elections. The voters of Angelina County have every right to expect that a free press in a democracy will beat the drum of voter education and voter turnout as loudly as they can. When the next off-year election happens, the news media must step up to their role to educate the public about the complexity and details of multiple different and simultaneous polling locations. Our democracy is too precious to ignore.

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