Are special elections a waste of time and money?

150 150 Cheryl Getuiza

A tiny percentage of citizens even take the time to vote in special elections. (Photo Credit: faul)

California special elections—are they a waste of time and money or a necessary process? It is, in fact, how we chose our leaders and it’s our right. But can filling state legislative vacancies be handled in a more efficient manner?

Former legislator Gary Hart recently wrote an op-ed in the L.A. Times bringing the age old topic back on the table.

It’s a hot topic, especially amongst state elections officials and local government leaders. Why? L.A. County’s Registrar-Recorder and County Clerk, Dean Logan, sheds some light.

“I think it raises an interesting point. We’re seeing more and more frequent special vacancy elections occurring in California and we’re seeing the participation of voters in those elections consistently very low, much lower than a regularly scheduled election date and the cost of conducting those elections remains high despite the low turnout,” said Logan.

 “The return on the public’s investments on conducting those elections, we’re not getting a full representative sampling of the electorate and often times the filling of one vacancy triggers another vacancy and becomes like a domino effect so, it’s just an example of something that there’s some question in the efficiency and effectiveness of the system.”

The financial strain to have a state special election, as you can imagine, is difficult on municipalities whose hands are already tied due to tight budgets.

“At a time where the state and local governments are dealing with economic climate we are dealing with it just has all sorts of repercussions, for instance these are by and large state vacancies but the state does not reimburse the counties of the cost of conducting those elections nor are those elections budgeted in the current fiscal cycle because at the time you prepared your budget there was no awareness there was going to be a vacancy.”

According to the county’s registrar’s office, the cost estimate for the March 12, 2013 Senate District 32 special primary election is $560,000. Out of 58,520 voters in Pomona, only 5,634 voted.

“Just in L.A. County alone, in less than a decade, the number of special vacancy elections that we’ve had conducted have been huge and the amount of money the county has expended exceeds $12 million and that’s unbudgeted funding.”

State law requires a special election whenever there is a sudden state legislative vacancy.

“On one hand you want to give every voter every chance to express their preferences in an election but there are clearly ways to do that that doesn’t put nearly as much of a financial strain on local governments,” said Dan Schnur, Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

“One way of doing that would be to consolidate local elections with state or national campaigns. For example, we got an abysmal turnout in L.A. for the recent primary election, primarily because some people are not as focused on politics in an odd-numbered year, but you pair that for a campaign for governor or president and the level of interest and involvement becomes much greater and the cost becomes much less.”

Why have there been so many special elections?

“The issue of state special elections has always been a matter of concern but the situation has gotten increasingly more difficult under term limits and I say that as a term limit supporter.  Term limits have provided a welcome and necessary diversity to the legislature but you still haven’t eliminated the incentive for an office holder working under term limits to almost automatically be looking for their next office,” said Schnur.

So, what can be done to fix this system? Is it time to talk about reform?

“I don’t know. Governor Brown hasn’t exhibited nearly as much interest in issues of political government reform in this current administration compared to his previous time in office. But as someone who’s appropriately looking for ways to save taxpayer dollars it is something he should be willing to be focused on,” said Schnur.

Logan believes the state should be having this policy debate. In fact, this issue is on the radar of many in the elections world including member organizations of the Future of California Elections (FoCE), which California Forward is a part of.

“So I do think that the fact it’s being talked about more frequently is encouraging and hopefully will lead to a robust policy discussion. There is no easy solution to it. I’m encouraged by the fact that it continues to be a high profile issue. Every time there’s a vacancy these questions get asked and it’s healthy. It’s a dialogue that’s worth having.”


Cheryl Getuiza

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