How to Solve the Special Elections Problem
In a recent Sacramento Bee, the prolific political writer Dan Walters discusses the problem of legislative vacancies and how to fill them, focusing on a proposal by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. Senator Steinberg has introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 16, which would require the Governor to fill legislative vacancies by appointment within 21 days of the vacancy. The appointee would have to be from the same political party as the vacating member and each house would have the ability to reject the appointee. It is an interesting proposal, particularly given the political circumstances associated with the legal troubles of two members of the Senate. However, it also shines a bright light on the growing concern about the efficacy of special elections.
There’s been a bit of musical chairs in the Senate and Assembly as of late. When there has been a vacancy in the Senate, an Assembly member has almost always run and won, creating a new vacancy in the Assembly. A few legislators have recently resigned their positions, several to seek election to local offices. They often wait to make sure they’ve won the local office before resigning, which then requires a separate special election instead of one consolidated with the general election ballot. 2013 appears to be a record year for special elections with nine and 2014 starts off with one special election scheduled later this month.
Special elections are costly, especially when they cannot be consolidated with other elections. In Los Angeles County alone, special elections have cost more than $27 million since 2008. County election officials conduct these elections in the same way as other statewide elections, with the parallel process of polling places and poll workers run alongside the increasingly popular mail ballots. These costs are usually unanticipated and unbudgeted, creating a fiscal pressure on election departments and the county generally.
Special elections have embarrassingly low voter turnout. The 2013 special elections were particularly poor in turnout, with turnout rates in single digits in some of the later elections. Recently, Assembly Member Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was elected to Assembly District 54 in Los Angeles County in an early December special election – 8.47% of eligible voters cast a ballot.
Gratefully, Senator Steinberg and some of his legislative colleagues are thinking about ways to fill vacancies in a more effective and efficient way. In addition to SCA 16, Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez has introduced AB 1873, a San Diego County-sponsored measure to allow counties to conduct special elections for state legislative and congressional seats with an all-mail ballot (postage paid). Assembly Member Gonzalez was elected in a special election with a turnout of 14.45% and seeks to increase voter participation in special elections while saving the county money. (Senator Marty Block has introduced SB 1062 to require pre-paid postage on vote by mail ballots, but does not authorize any new all-mail elections.)
There are also a few bills to require state reimbursement for costs of special elections for legislative and congressional vacancies. Assembly Member Ridley-Thomas (he of the 8.47% special election turnout) is carrying the Los Angeles County-sponsored AB 2273, which would provide state reimbursement for special elections that occurred after January 1, 2013. Senator Norma Torres is carrying the nearly identical SB 963. Senator Andy Vidak is authoring SB 942, which would provide state reimbursement for special elections that have occurred between 2008 and 2014.
CSAC is supportive of ensuring that counties are appropriately funded for administering these costly and frequent special elections. But we are also very interested in a more efficacious approach to conducting special elections (note that we are supporting Assembly Member Gonzalez’s AB 1873). The problem is real and needs creative thinkers to resolve.