AUBURN — What a difference a year — and a controversial school budget — can make.
Last year, 1.8 percent of Auburn voters (289 people) turned out to decide the school budget.
This year, 6.3 percent (963 of 15,250 registered voters) showed up to vote, Auburn City Clerk Roberta Fogg said.
A turnout of 6.3 percent would be considered pathetic if the election was a presidential or gubernatorial one. Those elections attract between 55 percent and 70 percent, according to the Maine’s Secretary of State’s office.
But voter turnout for school budgets in Maine is typically in the single digits, Maine Municipal Association spokesman Eric Conrad said. “They don’t get great turnout, but you never know.” A hot issue or a budget perceived as too high can drive voters to the polls, he said.
In Mechanic Falls on Tuesday, voter turnout was 14 percent, Town Clerk Lisa Palmer said. Voters rejected the school budget, sending a message that spending was too high, she said. The number of Mechanic Falls voters was more than double what the town saw in 2010.
“Last year, we had 103 vote,” Palmer said.
For the Auburn school budget, the 6.3 percent voter turnout was the highest the city has seen, School Superintendent Tom Morrill said. And it’s high compared to other municipal budget votes.
In Lewiston, 2.1 percent of voters turned out to decide the school budget on May 10. That budget was not controversial. Last year, Lewiston’s turnout was also 2.1 percent; and 1.7 percent in 2009.
This is the fourth year that school budgets in Maine had to be approved by voters in special municipal balloting. Voting experts say it will take time for the public to get in the habit of voting on school spending in the spring, and that interest is low as long as the budget is not too high or controversial.
Auburn had that this year. The budget had a rocky road on the way to the referendum. In April, the Auburn School Committee approved a budget with a 5 percent hike and approved a new program to give iPad 2s to kindergartners. That angered some citizens and the Auburn City Council, which cut the budget to near this year’s level.
On Tuesday, Auburn’s one place of voting, Auburn Hall, didn’t have long lines, but there were spurts of voters at lunch time, when school was let out and school staff voted, and after 5 p.m. when people got out of work. Several voters said they squeezed in voting between work and their children’s sports games.
“It shows there’s real interest in the community,” Fogg said.