The people have spoken, but very quietly.

Fewer than 30 percent of those eligible to vote in Tuolumne County's school and special district elections Tuesday actually cast ballots. And not that many only about 15,000 of the county's 32,000 registered voters were even eligible to go to the polls.

In Calaveras County, where a jail construction bond issue spurred wide interest, participation about 36 percent was better.

But without Measure J, only residents of three small special districts would have voted Tuesday. That's only about 11,600 of Calaveras County's 26,700 registered voters

Such has been the fate of off-year, or Uniform District Election Law contests.

Even in the best of times when races for all school, water and special districts were waged during odd-numbered years UDEL ballots were without the cachet and clout of more politically glamorous general elections. Without candidates for president, governor or even county supervisor, interest has been historically low.

Turnouts for such elections have typically been 40 percent or less. In contrast, 2004's presidential election drew local turnouts of about 80 percent.

Things got worse when school and special districts began to opt out of the off-year elections. In 2005, the Tuolumne Utilities District, was joined by the Twain Harte Community Services, Summerville High School, Jamestown Elementary School and Jamestown Sanitary Districts in moving to general elections. In Calaveras, many school districts had already made the move.

The reason? Money.

TUD estimated its election costs could drop from $48,000 to about $13,000 by making the switch. With more candidates and more agencies splitting expenses, election bills for each drop. Not only that, but turnouts are far better in even years and more school and special district voters get a voice in picking their leaders.

The logic behind the switch is simple: More voters, fewer dollars.

School and special districts in some rural counties have already seen the light. Placer County, for instance, had no UDEL election yesterday. All its smaller districts have chosen to switch to even years.

Tuolumne County Clerk Debi Russell thinks districts here should follow suit and in the near future she will meet with those smaller agencies and boards to discuss a switch.

The pros are clear: Russell estimates that districts can cut their election costs by a third to a half while increasing turnouts by roughly the same margins.

There are, however, a couple of points in favor of the status quo:

? UDEL elections focus attention on school and special district races that otherwise might get lost at the bottom of crowded, four-page general election ballots. This argument, however, has already been undercut by the departure of TUD whose races were once the highlight of Tuolumne County off-year elections.

? Although far more voters turn out for general elections, they may not be as well informed. Someone who comes to the polls to choose a president may not know or care about candidates for local school boards or water district bond issues, and thus may vote out of ignorance. In contrast, those who cast ballots in Tuesday's county elections must have been informed. Why else would they have gone to the polls?

Still, a case can be made that many general election voters will read their ballot pamphlets and make it their business to know what they're deciding. Also, higher turnouts would force candidates to tailor their messages to a larger audience rather than targeting only special interests.

Finally, a switch to even years may not only lure more voters, but more candidates.

Of 50 Tuolumne County school and special district seats theoretically up for election Tuesday, voters only filled 10. That's because only one candidate each filed for 28 of the seats and no one filed for the other 12.

Apathy? Or did the approaching off-year election catch would-be candidates by surprise? Perhaps more hats would be tossed in the ring in advance of elections which are widely publicized and anticipated.

Although it might seem almost undemocratic to hold fewer elections, the arguments for leaving UDEL behind are more than persuasive.

Yes, we wouldn't go to the polls as much, and sometimes 18 months would pass between ballots. But, as Tuesday's turnout made clear, off-year elections will not be missed.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.