Day 4 of our Top 15 stories to watch in 2023 – local elections

Welcome to the Thursday, March 9, Brew. 

All week, we will be celebrating Ballotpedia’s 15th Anniversary by bringing you the top 15 political stories to keep an eye on this year.

Today, we tackle some of the most interesting local elections in 2023.

Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. San Antonio voters to decide on a measure regarding abortion, marijuana, and police actions
  2. Ballotpedia is covering more than 8,700 school board seats up for election across 28 states
  3. One school board recall effort connected to COVID-19 so far in 2023
  4. Twelve candidates are running (so far) for mayor in Memphis, Tennessee

San Antonio voters to decide on a measure regarding abortion, marijuana, and police actions

Let’s start in San Antonio, where voters will decide on a charter amendment regarding abortion, marijuana, and police actions on May 6, 2023.

If approved by voters, the charter amendment would:

  • end enforcement of low-level marijuana possession (Class A or B misdemeanor offenses)
  • prohibit San Antonio police officers from investigating or making arrests for abortions, as well as prohibit them from enforcing any state law that criminalizes abortion
  • ban no-knock warrants
  • ban law enforcement use of chokeholds
  • use citations instead of arrests for low-level, nonviolent crimes

The measure would also allow the City Council to appoint a Justice Director. The role of the Justice Director would include reducing incarceration and mitigating law enforcement practices. The position would report directly to the City Council.

The San Antonio City Council voted on Feb. 16 to place the charter amendment on the ballot after certifying that organizers submitted 20,973 valid signatures – above the 20,000 signature requirement to certify the initiative for the ballot.

ACT 4 SA, a nonprofit organization, worked to place the initiative on the ballot along with other advocacy groups, like Ground Game Texas. Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, said: “We will be saving money, keeping families together, stopping the unnecessary overcrowding of jails — but most of all, we will be saving lives through these policies.”

The San Antonio Police Officers Association opposes the amendment. Danny Diaz, president of the union, said no-knock warrants and chokeholds are already prohibited unless a life is at serious risk. Diaz also said the proposed charter amendment is in direct conflict with state law regarding abortion and marijuana cases.

“The decriminalization of marijuana and abortion are handled at the state and federal level of government,” Diaz said in a statement, “This is not a decision that can be implemented at a local level.”

The Texas Alliance for Life, a nonprofit organization that describes itself as pro-life, sued the San Antonio City Clerk and the San Antonio City Council on Feb. 9, alleging the proposed charter amendment violates the Texas Local Government Code, which prohibits multiple-subject charter amendments. The single-subject rule requires ballot initiatives to address a single subject, topic, or issue. Of the 26 states that provide for citizen-initiated ballot measures, 17 of those states have single-subject rules. While Texas does not provide for statewide citizen initiatives, Texas law requires local charter amendments to include only one subject.

The Texas Alliance for Life said: “[Our] emergency petition for writ of mandamus shows that the proposed charter amendment, which contains six distinct amendments shoe-horned into one proposition, violates state law and must be blocked and separated into distinct proposals.”

Mike Siegel, the political director and co-founder of Ground Game Texas, told the San Antonio Report: “Every day, police departments decide what they’re going to enforce and what they’re not going to enforce, and this represents the people of San Antonio saying: these are not our priorities for our scarce public dollars.” Siegel added, “The roots of the Texas Constitution are in local self-control [and] self-determination. So that’s why we have charter cities that have this authority to adopt their own charters and decide their own laws.”

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Ballotpedia is covering more than 8,700 school board seats up for election across 28 states 

This might be an off-cycle election year for Congress and most state legislatures, but school board elections don’t stop. With about 83,000 board members in over 13,000 districts, school boards are some of the most influential elected bodies in the country—but also some of the most overlooked. 

In 2023, Ballotpedia is covering elections for approximately 8,750 school board seats in 3,211 school districts across 28 states. Traditionally, we’ve covered all school districts in the 100 largest cities by population and the 200 largest school districts by student enrollment.

We’re covering all school board elections in the following 10 states this year:

  • Colorado
  • Kansas
  • Minnesota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Elections will happen throughout the year. The first set of statewide primaries happened in Oklahoma on Feb. 14, followed by Wisconsin on Feb. 21. Those states will hold general elections on April 4.

Here’s a snapshot of where we’ll be covering school board elections a little later in the year:

  • Texas will hold general elections on May 6. 
  • Oregon will hold general elections on May 16.
  • Kansas will hold primary elections on Aug. 1. 
  • Sixteen states will hold general elections on Nov. 7. 

A diverse assortment of concerns has always motivated people to run for seats on their local school board. However, over the last few years, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, school board elections have increasingly mirrored concerns found in partisan state and national politics. In 2021 and 2022, we tracked 1,998 districts in 49 states where school board candidates took a position on one or more of the following topics—race in education/critical race theory, responses to the coronavirus pandemic, and sex and gender in schools. 

Although most school board elections are officially nonpartisan, political parties, national political organizations, and incumbent state officeholders have endorsed candidates in some races. To take two recent examples from February: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) released a list of incumbents he is targeting for defeat in 2024, and the Democratic Party of Illinois said it plans to release a list of over 100 candidates it opposes in the state’s April 4 elections.  

From 2018 to 2022, we covered elections for 3,319 school board seats in 1,141 school districts. We found that:

  • Between 24% and 40% of elections were unopposed each year
  • Incumbents won between 51% and 61% of seats each year
  • Between 79% and 89% of incumbents who sought reelection won each year.

If you’d like to learn more, subscribe to Hall Pass, our weekly education newsletter, to stay up to date on school board elections and education policy. New editions reach your inbox on Wednesday afternoons.

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One school board recall effort connected to COVID-19 so far in 2023

Let’s now turn to school board recall efforts. So far in 2023, one school board recall effort has been related to COVID-19, and it started in the spring of 2022. 

Three school board members in the Richland School District in Washington were named in recall petitions that said the members violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act; violated district policies, procedures, and code of ethics; and voted to make masks optional while a statewide mask requirement was in place. All three board members denied any wrongdoing. The recall petitions went through multiple court hearings before the Washington Supreme Court approved them for circulation on Feb. 9, 2023.

Ballotpedia tracked 131 recall efforts related to COVID-19 or government responses to the pandemic in 2021 and 34 in 2022. School board recall efforts accounted for 54 of those efforts in 2021 (41%) and 22 in 2022 (65%). Ballotpedia tracked 92 total school board recalls in 2021, more than in any year over the previous decade, with the increase driven largely by COVID-related recall activity.

Twenty-three states allow for the recall of school board members.

One recall election against one school board member has been held so far this year. Voters approved it, which removed the member from office. Another member resigned after a recall effort was started against her, and efforts against six members ended before going to a vote. 

Ballotpedia has tracked 10 school board recall efforts against 18 board members so far in 2023. In 2022, we tracked 52 efforts against 120 school board members. In 2021, we tracked 92 efforts against 237 school board members.  

One of the efforts underway is happening in the Sandusky Community School District in Michigan. A group called Save the Redskins Logo is circulating recall petitions against three of the seven members of the school board. The group said the three members failed “to represent and listen to the voice of the public to retain the Redskin logo and voted to change the logo to the wolves on Nov. 28, 2022.” Jason Trepkowski, one of the members named in the recall petitions, said there were no lies or deceit involved with the name change. “We had eight meetings before we changed this name, and it was all out in the open,” Trepkowski said.

We’ve tracked an average of 28 recall efforts against an average of 66 school board members each year between 2009 and 2022.

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Twelve candidates are running (so far) for mayor in Memphis, Tennessee

Finally, let’s turn to Memphis, Tennessee, where voters will elect a new mayor on Oct. 5, 2023. Incumbent Jim Strickland (D), in office since 2016, is term-limited.  

The filing deadline for the election is July 20, 2023. Twelve candidates had declared their candidacy as of March 8, 2023, including six Democrats, three Republicans, and two independents. In 2019, twelve candidates ran. 

While the election is officially nonpartisan, many candidates (and officeholders) are affiliated with a political party. 

The candidates who have received the most media attention are: 

  • Floyd Bonner (D), Shelby County sheriff; 
  • Joe Brown (I), former Shelby County Criminal Court judge and host of the reality court show ‘’Judge Joe Brown’’; 
  • Karen Camper (D), Tennessee House Minority Leader; 
  • Frank Colvett (R); Memphis City council member and former council chairman; 
  • J.W. Gibson (D), former Shelby County commissioner and businessman; 
  • Willie Wilbert Herenton (D), former Memphis mayor (1992-2009);  
  • Michelle McKissack (D); member of the Shelby County Board of Education and a former broadcast journalist;
  • Van Turner (D), former Shelby County commissioner and president of the NAACP Memphis branch, and;
  • Paul Young, CEO of the Downtown Memphis Commission. 

According to University of Memphis professor Otis Sanford, the issues of crime and police conduct will have an outsized effect in the October election. “[…] The race for mayor will come down [to] who has the clearer and most convincing message — not just about fighting crime, but changing the culture in the police department in light of the police killing of Tyre Nichols,” Sanford said.

Memphis, the 27th largest city in the U.S., has had a Democratic mayor since 1992. That year, Willie Herenton (also a candidate for mayor this year) defeated then-incumbent Richard Hackett by 146 votes. Herenton was elected to five consecutive terms before he resigned in 2009.

As of March 2023, the partisan breakdown of the mayors of the 100 largest U.S. cities was 62 Democrats, 26 Republicans, three independents, and seven nonpartisans. Two mayors’ partisan affiliations were unknown. 

Based on 2020 population estimates, 76.1% of the population of the top 100 cities lived in cities with Democratic mayors, and 16.2% lived in cities with Republican mayors at the start of 2022.

The Memphis mayoral election is one of 40 mayoral elections Ballotpedia is covering in 2023. These include all mayoral elections in the 100 largest U.S. cities and all mayoral elections in state capitals. 

Memphis is also holding elections for county clerk and all 13 seats on the city council in 2023. 

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