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Teachers union elections: who votes and who cares

In the first part of several posts on the upcoming teachers union elections, here’s a look at how voting works and who does it.

Every three years, the UFT contracts its internal election out to the American Arbitration Association, and on March 12, the AAA sent out 167,000 ballots to UFT members. Those ballots went to members who have retired as well as to those who are still working, landing on doorsteps across the five boroughs and in sun-soaked places like Florida and Arizona where retirees often cluster.

The thick packets arrive via snail mail — union officials say this is because they can’t count that retired members will have an internet connection — and contain the names of the 1,485 candidates running for about 900 positions. (We’ll have more on who those people are tomorrow.)

Once a member opens and fills out her ballot, she places it in an envelope marked “secret ballot.” The ballot is sealed, sent to the AAA, and counted on April 7. To help the organization figure out what kinds of UFT members voted, the ballots are color-coded. Functional members (paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, nurses, etc.) have green ballots, high school teachers have pink ballots (or “coral,” as a UFT spokesman told me), elementary school ballots are blue, retirees have white ballots, and middle school ballots are ivory, which I’m told is more of a beige.

Of the more than hundred thousand ballots sent out, most don’t make it back to the AAA.

In 2007, the last time the UFT elected a president, 46,735 votes were cast — a participation rate of about 30 percent.

About 38 percent of the total vote came from retirees, who are much more likely to vote than active members. The percentage of active members who vote declined from 29 percent in 2004 to 22 percent in 2007. When asked why this is, a UFT spokesman said that retirees are more likely to have witnessed the union’s foundation and seen it come to power, making them more enthusiastic about unionism in general. They’ve also reaped the pension benefits that younger teachers can only anticipate. Plus, they have more time on their hands to fill out ballots.

In fact, retirees are so enthusiastic that the union has had to cap their votes at 18,000 so they don’t outnumber active UFT members and effectively govern the union. In 2007, 22,500 retirees voted, which means that for retirees, the “one person, one vote” rule effectively turned into “one person, 0.8 vote.”

That same year, only 24,235 active members voted. Along with carefully watching the margins they win by, UFT presidents are routinely concerned about how much of the active teacher vote they get. If the population currently teaching in the city’s classrooms starts to stray to opposition groups, or is too apathetic to vote, the union could be in trouble.

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