Not So Special: California Officials Face Follow-On Election Season

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It’s January, and you’d think that meant that election officials who’d gone full throttle during the November general election would be recuperating. You’d be wrong. January has become a magnet for special elections necessitated by the general election results – with a whole new set of challenges for election offices. The LA Times has more:

Welcome to the latest installment of the ongoing California soap opera known as special elections.

This episode begins with former Sen. Barbara Boxer’s decision to retire in 2016, leading to the election of Sen. Kamala Harris. When she gave up her post as state attorney general, Gov. Jerry Brown chose Los Angeles Rep. Xavier Becerra as her replacement.

And to fill Becerra’s seat, Brown must call a special election in the 34th Congressional District…

The common sense meaning of the word “special” is to describe something that, at the very least, is unusual. But there have been 50 special legislative or congressional elections in California in the last decade, according to state records. Thirteen contests were held in 2013 — more than any single year for almost the last quarter-century.

These follow-on elections come with costs that jurisdictions are often unprepared to pay:

While the elections themselves are no longer special, the costs to conduct them are almost always a surprise to the counties that must pay for them.

Dean Logan, the registrar of voters for Los Angeles County, said his $1.3-million estimate for the election to replace Becerra doesn’t factor in what happens if the winner is a sitting legislator.

“The congressional contest could result in a legislative vacancy, which starts the whole process over again,” he said.

In all, Logan’s office conducted 23 special elections from 2008 to 2015. The total cost: $22.7 million.

It doesn’t help that individual candidate considerations end up adding more dates to the calendar:

[T]hat brings us back to the timing of Becerra’s resignation from Congress. The veteran Democratic congressman chose to remain in his current job until confirmed by the Legislature, going so far as to take the oath of office last week on Capitol Hill, though approval by Democrats in Sacramento is all but a done deal.

That late action means, thanks to the timeline set out in California election law, the primary in this congressional special election can’t be consolidated with a scheduled countywide election on March 7. And with a dozen declared candidates, the likely runoff to replace Becerra may miss the chance to be conducted at the same time as Los Angeles’ May 16 city election.

Worst of all, these full-price elections usually draw far less than full turnout:

Special elections have some of the lowest voter participation rates in California history. Two years ago, a special election for a state Senate seat in the high desert north of Los Angeles saw just 6.2% of eligible voters cast ballots.

Even so, efforts to change things have fizzled. In 2014, a proposal to allow the governor to fill most vacancies by appointment failed to win over legislators — some of whom had won special elections. In 2015, lawmakers rejected a plan to require the state to pay for special elections.

And so the saga continues. It will be worth watching just how many of the 306,631 voters in Becerra’s congressional district show up to select his replacement this winter and spring. After all, they’re paying for it.

This challenge isn’t unique to California; for example, Virginia is conducting special elections today after a sitting state legislator was elected to Congress, and depending on the outcome, there may be more vacancies to fill.

In short, special election expenses should no longer be surprises. Appropriators should be building in the cost of special elections to any election budget – or looking at ways to mitigate the cost of follow-on elections.

Whether they actually do so is another matter entirely. Stay tuned …

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