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Low Turnout, High Cost: Time to Rethink Special Elections?

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Washington, DC held a special election yesterday to choose an at-large member of the city council and decide a charter amendment dealing with the budget process. Turnout was less than 10%, falling short of the Board of Elections' already pessimistic estimate of 14%.

Low-turnout special elections are increasingly a topic of discussion across the country. In California, former state legislator Gary Hart wrote an Los Angeles Times op-ed calling state special elections a "waste", laying out numerous reasons why he thinks the process isn't working:

Special elections to fill vacant legislative seats present many problems. One is that waiting to schedule an election means a seat can stay vacant for months. During that time residents of the district have no vote in the Legislature -- a classic case of taxation without representation.

Special elections are also a distraction. After general elections in the fall of even-numbered years, we want elected leaders to focus on governing. But special elections mean more fundraising, more partisanship, more politicking and less governing.

Special elections often aren't representative because the turnout is notoriously poor. For example, in the recent special election in the 32nd Senate District (in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties) less than 10% of registered voters cast ballots. And these voters tend to be more partisan and ideologically driven, and moderate voices are significantly diminished.

Special elections are a burden on taxpayers and county government, especially in less populated counties. And with voter turnout so low, many polling places have very few "customers." In the 32nd Senate District election, for example, the costs are estimated to have exceeded $2 million, or close to $50 per vote cast -- not a smart way to do business. In the last decade, Los Angeles County has had more than a dozen special elections costing more than a total of $12 million.

Los Angeles County's Dean Logan filled in some more details on a blog post at California Forward:

We're seeing more and more frequent special vacancy elections occurring in California and we're seeing the participation of voters in those elections consistently very low, much lower than a regularly scheduled election date and the cost of conducting those elections remains high despite the low turnout ...

The return on the public's investments on conducting those elections, we're not getting a full representative sampling of the electorate and often times the filling of one vacancy triggers another vacancy and becomes like a domino effect so, it's just an example of something that there's some question in the efficiency and effectiveness of the system ...

At a time where the state and local governments are dealing with economic climate we are dealing with it just has all sorts of repercussions, for instance these are by and large state vacancies but the state does not reimburse the counties of the cost of conducting those elections nor are those elections budgeted in the current fiscal cycle because at the time you prepared your budget there was no awareness there was going to be a vacancy ...

Just in L.A. County alone, in less than a decade, the number of special vacancy elections that we've had conducted have been huge and the amount of money the county has expended exceeds $12 million and that's unbudgeted funding.

It's also hard on election offices. Johnson County's Brian Newby recently blogged about having conducted a "full deck" of 52 elections in his first 9 years:


[W]ith news today of another mail-ballot election coming this year, that will put us at two planned elections and three special elections (at least) in 2013. My running total of elections administered will now be a full deck, 52 in less than nine years.

52 seems like a lot to me. Before I became an election guy, I had no idea there were so many elections.

We're averaging nearly one election every two months since I've been here, and that's been a pretty steady moving average. With mail-ballot elections planned for the Olathe School District, Overland Park, and Olathe, the majority of our county's voters will have another, unplanned election in 2013 ...

We only have a few months to make hay, personally and at the office. Most staff members are max'd out on vacation accruals, have home repairs to address, and children events to make up after being invisible ...

Most importantly, we need to begin addressing every strategic issue facing us before we're into the 2014 cycle. We're kicking off that process on July 2, when we thought we'd be done with elections for the year (ha). I'll be reporting on that process here.

Meanwhile, the outside world assumes we're in down time. Every meeting that could have been scheduled over the last 18 months is getting scheduled and our calendars are more overloaded than ever.

It's not like we can outlaw special elections: deaths, retirements, resignations and term limits all conspire - sometimes in unexpected ways - to create vacancies. As John Lennon once famously observed, "life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Solutions to the problem are just as challenging. Allowing appointed replacements - or delaying special elections until regularly-scheduled dates - removes voters' ability to choose their representatives. Consolidating state and local elections - which would reduce the sequential vacancies that occur as incumbents resign to fill vacancies, creating new vacancies - risk pushing lower-level elections into the background.

Either way, however, it's important to have a policy discussion about how to handle special elections - if we can find the time between special elections.

I'll give Brian Newby the last word: "[M]aybe conventional wisdom is right: when the election ends, maybe the work really is over. We'll find out someday, maybe, when there isn't an election in process."

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