Commentary

09/18/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

Lucky Voter #38: LA Co. special elections suffer from high cost and low turnout


(photo credit: Matthew Anson)

Is it possible to have too much democracy? If it is, it’s happening right here in the Golden State. There, I said it. Too much of what we as a state and country consistenly pride ourselves in. Now let me tell you why.

The fact is that California has too many elections and not enough active voters. Not only is this costly, but special election results are almost always unrepresentative of the electorate.

Maybe it’s the electoral hangover talking, but California’s constant election cycle is exhausting! Just yesterday, I cast my third ballot in nine months and must head to the polls one more time before the year is through. Voting in two, three, even four elections in one year is becoming an increasingly common occurrence thanks to the never-ending game of political musical chairs. 

The resulting rise in legislative vacancies has triggered a surge in special elections. In fact, yesterday’s special election to fill vacancies in AD 45 and SD 26 was the 11th unscheduled election in Los Angeles County in this year alone, said Dean Logan Los Angeles County Registrar. With three more on the way, the total will hit 14 by year’s end.

"We have a joke around the office,” said Logan. “There are so many elections it seems like there is one every Tuesday. It's like putting your trash cans out. If it's Tuesday, there must be a special election somewhere."

But the cost of conducting these (not-so) special elections is no laughing matter. Although special elections are used to fill vacancies at the state-level, the fiscal burden of these unplanned expenses has fallen on county governments already struggling to do more with less. According to Logan, Los Angeles County has spent at least $30 million on special elections in the last six years alone. 

To make matters worse, due to a severe outbreak of Election Fatigue, voters are choosing to stay home. Despite showing up to my polling place just three hours before the polls closed yesterday, I was only the 38th voter in my precinct (which has more than 1,000 registered voters) to have cast a ballot. According to preliminary tallies, just nine percent of registered voters in AD 45 even bothered heading to the polls. With an estimated overall price tag of $1.8 million, that breaks down to roughly $82 per vote. 

The combined turnout for both of yesterday’s races was an abysmal six percent. A vibrant and representative democracy depends on an engaged and informed electorate. Our system of filling legislative vacancies fosters neither. When more than 90 percent of eligible voters stay home, something is clearly broken.  

So what can be done to fix it?

Nixing special elections altogether in favor of appointments is one potential solution. More than 20 states use appointments to fill empty legislative or congressional seats. In California, gubernatorial appointments can be used to fill vacant seats on a county board of supervisors and in the U.S. Senate. However critics argue that an appointment process takes power away from the voters. But given the paltry turnout in special elections, how much muscle are they really flexing collectively? Is an election decided by less than 10 percent of voters really better than no election at all?

“If we had a ‘resign-to-run’ law in California, it would cut down significantly on special elections,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. Requiring sitting elected officials to resign in order to run for a different seat, as five other states already do, would reduce the shuffling of seats that send the political dominoes tumbling triggering the wave of special elections in the first place. 

If California had such a law on the books, there would have been no need for yesterday’s special election to fill empty seats in AD 45 and SD 26, saving Los Angeles County voters and elections administrators time, energy, and money. Both vacancies were created when state lawmakers Bob Blumenfield and Curren Price were elected to the Los Angeles City Council.  

“In what other profession but politics would co-workers tolerate fellow co-workers spending time ‘on the job’ seeking out another job and slacking off on their duties,” asked Alexander. 

“Certainly the constituents who elect a lawmaker to an office are getting less service from a representative who is suddenly coveting a different office with different constituents and different public policy issues,” she said.

While there is no overwhelming agreement on the solution, all agree that the way California fills legislative vacancies isn't working. Counties are spending millions of dollars they don’t have, voters aren’t participating, and elections are being decided by a small unrepresentative share of the electorate. If a higher frequency of elections depresses turnout, it's possible that fewer elections might improve turnout in addition to saving taxpayer dollars.

Too much of a good thing can be bad, even when it comes to elections. Let’s make special elections special again.  

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