Commentary

11/20/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

Deja Vu: Yet another Special Election Tuesday comes and goes in California


Empty polling locations are an all-too-familiar sight on day's like Tuesday's special election in AD 45 (photo: nonnormalizable)

Remember the feeling you got when the last bell of the semester rang and you turned in that final term paper before break? That mixture of relief, utter exhaustion, and sheer excitement is what I felt after casting my ballot in Tuesday’s special election in the 45th Assembly District.  With my fourth and final trip to the polls this year now in the rear view mirror, I’ll need a substitute activity to fill my Tuesday afternoons. That is, at least until the 2014 election season begins.

According to the electoral zodiac, which is believed to have been used by the wise and often under-appreciated clan known as registrars, 2013 is the year of the political domino. Translation: A rise in political seat-hopping triggered a record number of special elections to fill legislative vacancies in California this year. With one more scheduled for December 3, a whopping 14 will have been held by year’s end.

Despite being called special elections, there’s nothing special about them. With neither a precinct champagne room nor a VIP voter list, the song and dance routine required to put on an election is the same whether it’s a regularly scheduled, even-year, odd-year, or special election. The problem is elections aren’t cheap and legislative vacancies are often unexpected. Even though the vacancies occur at the state level, counties shoulder unanticipated cost of filling them. 

Yesterday’s special election in AD 45 has an estimated price tag of $1.7 million, according to Los Angeles County Registrar Dean Logan. Just in the last six years, according to Logan, Los Angeles County has spent roughly $30 million on special legislative elections alone. 

Not only are counties shelling out millions of dollars they don’t necessarily have to spare, but people aren’t voting. Just 10 percent of my neighbors bothered voting in yesterday’s election. Given the cost, that breaks down to about $64 per vote. Although turnout was paltry, it comes in only slightly below the average participation rate in special elections this year. In fact, it’s double the district’s turnout rate for the primary held in September. 

Plagued with dismally low turnout, special elections are rarely representative of the electorate. Likely and infrequent voters often have varying political beliefs so when only a tiny fraction of voters elects an official, the actual policy priorities or perspectives of an entire constituency gets distorted. 

In Assembly District 45, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, yet the Democratic candidate in yesterday’s election leads by a margin of fewer than 200 votes as of the writing of this piece. In the special primary however, Democratic candidates received nearly twice as many votes as Republicans. While the race is still too close to call, the results demonstrate how groups in the minority can have a major impact on low turnout elections. 

While there is no agreement on a solution, when 80 percent of voters opt to stay home, at minimum it’s clear that California’s system of filling legislative vacancies needs fixing. Too much money is being spent and not enough voters are participating. 

The school bell will inevitably ring, but civic education and participation are lifelong duties that are being shirked by Californians who many times don’t realize an election such as Tuesday’s even happened, or have lost the desire to add another "I Voted" sticker to their burgeoning collection. Boosting the state’s dismal voter participation rate is vital to the continued health and legitimacy of California’s democracy.

Categories: Democracy, Elections

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