Isn’t That … SPECIAL: electionlineWeekly on Election Officials and Unexpected Elections

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[Image courtesy of athomeinthecove]

Mindy Moretti’s latest for electionlineWeekly looks at the latest episode of what I’ve termed Lennon’s Law – namely, that life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans:

Mid-Tuesday afternoon, while much of America was enjoying St. Patrick’s Day, Twitter suddenly blew up with the news that Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock (R-18th District) had announced his resignation.

While journalists and political gadflies on social media made light of the resignation or talked about its impact on politics, all electionline could think was of those poor elections administrators and volunteers in Illinois.

Now some of those elections officials are going to have conduct a special election to replace Schock on top of previously planned spring elections – and for some, on top of other special elections.

“In a year when state revenues are almost certain to decrease, the increased cost of an unanticipated and unbudgeted election is particularly difficult,” Peoria County Administrator Lori Curtis Luther told the Peoria Journal Star.

This will be the third special Congressional election in Illinois in the last few years.

For Peoria elections officials, the special election creates a whole different set of issues in addition to funding.

Last year, voters approved a measure to create a countywide election commission, which was supposed to have almost a full year to get up and running before its first election. Now, they need to scramble.

The creation of the countywide commission was delayed until after the April primaries to avoid confusion but now it’s unclear who will oversee the special election.

While special elections have been around for almost as long as elections, there certainly seem to have been a boom of them lately and according to KQED a review of California’s state election records proves that.

Since 2009 there have been 33 special state and legislative or congressional elections- more than were held in the entire previous decade. And these special elections often bring with them terrible turnout.

In fact, just this week California jurisdictions held three special elections with one race featuring only one candidate.

The cost for the one-candidate special election in San Bernardino County is likely to come in between $200,00-$300,000.

“We won’t know until all the bills are in. We are running lean, as lean as we can,” Registrar Michael J. Scarpello told the Daily Press. “It’s not a hotly contested race. We think it will be in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.”

Some areas are trying to find ways to fight back against the growing pile of special elections.

Earlier this month, California Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) introduced AB 971 that would require the state to fund local elections — something it once did.

In Ohio, House Bill 240 and Senate Bill 35 were introduced during the last session of the General Assembly (2013-2014), that would have eliminated special school and municipal elections in February and August, but the legislation failed to make it out of committee.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo fought against holding a special election to replace Congressman Michael G. Grimm after he resigned, citing costs, but a court ruled that regardless of the costs, the election must be held.

On a local level in California, the Elk Grove city council is considering a measure that would move the city from an at-large election system to a district system that supporters of the measure say could save the city thousands of dollars since vacated seats could be filled through appointment instead of special election.

Across the country in Rhode Island, the North Smithfield town council is considering a charter change allowing the second-highest vote getter to fill a vacant seat on the town council when a member resigns/dies, if there is more than a year left on the term.

And in some areas, legislators are getting creative to avoid the costs of a special election. In Elburn, Illinois, the village was pondering holding a special election regarding the police pension fund, but upon learning that it would cost more than $64,000 to hold the special election, village officials decided to consider other options including increasing the sales tax — something that in Elburn doesn’t require an election.

Gratuitous SNL nostalgia notwithstanding, this really isn’t funny – election offices across the nation are already right at the margin running their regularly-scheduled elections on their existing budgets. And, as someone who believes in the idea that voters should have the primary role in our system of democracy, I’m not comfortable with jurisdictions finding ways to avoid holding elections just to cut costs.

The truth is that this problem is really more of a political or policy question than an election administration one – but all too often it’s the people who count the votes who end up catching the special-election grenade.

Policymakers across the nation need to get a better grip on what it actually costs to conduct elections. That way, we can ensure that when a vacancy occurs – whether the incumbent is stepping up, stepping down or simply stepped in it – we don’t end up forcing election offices to “rob November to pay June” because special elections don’t come with special funding.

Thanks to Mindy, as always for her attention to these issues – and stay tuned …

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