Represent!

Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Expensive special elections are often ignored by voters

Volunteer Cynthia Shaw waits for voters to show up for a special election in Fontana. Not one voter turned up in the first three hours the polls were open.
Volunteer Cynthia Shaw waits for voters to show up for a special election in Fontana. Not one voter turned up in the first three hours the polls were open. Alice Walton/KPCC

You may have missed it, but earlier this week there was a state Senate election in the Inland Empire. Special elections can cost counties hundreds of thousands — sometimes even millions — of taxpayer dollars. But, it doesn't have to be that way. 

California's constitution calls for special elections to be held within a certain time frame whenever there's an unexpected vacancy in a public office. Last year, Los Angeles County had 14 special elections to fill vacancies left by politicians – at a cost of $15 million. San Bernardino County had 13 special elections.

The elections could be for anything from state to local races. The counties absorb all the costs because the state does not reimburse them. 

"We have way too many special elections, so they're actually not-so-special elections," says Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School. She makes the case for allowing the governor to fill vacancies in the Legislature.
 
"When we're talking about the alternative, when we're talking about appointments, it's important to remember that it's not a king or an unelected monarch that is potentially making the appointments," she said. "In the case of the California Legislature, it could be the governor, who everyone in California had the opportunity to vote [for]." 
 
Under that scenario, Governor Jerry Brown could have appointed a successor to the state Senate seat vacated by Curren Price when he was elected last year to the L.A. City Council. And, Brown could have appointed another successor to Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell's seat, which she abandoned to run for Price's senate office. 

The combined cost for those two elections was $5.4 million. Neither election had a turnout above nine percent. Some of the vacancies are caused by term limits in Sacramento, which causes lawmakers to jump at other opportunities in the middle of their terms.      

"The fact of the matter is that the Assembly and the Senate together have not had a full compliment of members since the beginning of the session," notes state Senate President Pro Tem Darryl Steinberg.

Steinberg supports allowing the governor to make appointments to the Legislature – something he already has the power to do when there's a vacancy on a Board of Supervisors or in the U.S. Senate.
 
"I'm going to put across a measure that seeks to reduce the expense and also reduce the amount of time that a given district is without a member by allowing the governor to appoint a member – at least for a short period of time," Steinberg said. 
 
But such a proposal is likely to face some resistance. The League of Women Voters hasn't taken a position on the issue, but it's something the group is discussing. 
 
"Our primary concern now, and would still be our concern in the future, is going to center around transparency," said Raquel Beltran, executive director of the group's L.A. branch. "It's going to center around accountability and inclusion." 
 
Tuesday's vote in the Inland Empire was mandated even though there's a regularly scheduled election on June 3 — less than three months away. According to preliminary results, the election drew just 65,000 voters — about a 19 percent turnout.

One of those who showed up to a polling place in Rancho Cucamonga was Cory Rodgers.  He believes citizens need to vote regardless of an election's timing.
 
"We try to make it to every election because otherwise if we don't vote, then we don't have room to complain," he said. 
 
Republican Assemblyman Mike Morrell won Tuesday's election to the state senate. 

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