Growing chorus calling for special elections reform in California

150 150 Christopher Nelson

(photo credit: Stefan Bucher)

We have documented the rash of special legislative elections here at California Forward, lamenting how they are costly affairs that promote democratic fatigue in the very same citizens who are footing the bill. This past year saw 13 special legislative elections throughout the state, which occur when a seat is vacated and the vote to fill it cannot be scheduled on a day that was already set to hold elections.

There’s a growing chorus of elections officials, voter advocates and lawmakers questioning the way California fills mid-term vacancies in the state legislature. They often carry a price tag of over $1 million in tax dollars and uniformly see less than 30 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

In April of last year the LA Times ran an adamant appeal by retired State Senator Gary Hart for gubernatorial appointments in lieu of special elections. At the end of 2013, law professor and Los Angeles Ethics Commissioner Jessica Levinson penned an op-ed calling for an end to special elections. And not one but two columns from George Skelton discussed the very same topic. In the second, he addressed an onslaught of emails in response to the first claiming that appointments would be wholly un-American.

But those who argue that gubernatorial appointments are undemocratic can’t look at those turnout rates and claim that the current system is any more so. What politician has anything resembling a mandate when far less than one quarter of his or her constituents voted them in to power? It is typically those on the far reaches of the ideological spectrum that comprise the dismal turnout for special elections. It can also be argued that they detract from actual governmental work by adding more fundraising and campaigning in off years that could be spent doing work instead of glad-handing.

Furthermore, a vacated seat can typically stay vacant for months. The seat recently left in Redlands by State Senator Bill Emmerson will likely stay empty until June. It was taxation without representation that led to America’s democracy being formed in the first place yet it is happening all too often in the nation’s most populous state. If no one garners more than 50 percent of the vote in the March 25 special primary to fill Emmerson’s seat, the good people in SD 23 will be without a representative in the state budget negotiations. San Diego was similarly hit by the legislative game of musical chairs in 2013.

Sen. Hart’s ideas have a backer currently serving in the Legislature in Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg. Saying that he is “frustrated” with the amount of money being spent on special elections, Sen. Steinberg plans to introduce a constitutional amendment that would give Gov. Brown the power to fill legislative vacancies by appointment. They would be subject to approval by the house where the vacancy resides, but even that safeguard has California Republicans calling this a power grab meant to strengthen the Democrats’ already significant advantage in Sacramento.

In response to the criticism, proponents argue the use of appointments to fill empty seats is not without precedent. In fact, 25 states use some form of appointments to fill empty legislative seats. Some allow for gubernatorial appointments, others allow the political party that last held the seat to appoint someone, and yet others task the board of supervisors with appointing a representative. Plus, the governor of California is currently authorized to fill open US Senate and County Supervisor seats by appointment.

More people and media are getting hip to the cost of special elections, which can sometimes wind up in gaudy, $50 per vote territory. Whether the county or the state foots the bill (as San Bernardino is asking Sacramento to do via legislation ironically sponsored by former Sen. Emmerson), it still comes out of John Q. Taxpayer’s pocket. With recent cuts to higher education to get California’s budget back in the black, consistently underfunded K-12 public programs and woefully outdated infrastructure in many areas, the money could clearly be better spent.


Christopher Nelson

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