Bruce Maiman

Want higher voter turnout? Get rid of special elections

State Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, addresses lawmakers after being sworn in Thursday. She won a special election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Steve Knight, who was elected to the 25th Congressional District.
State Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, addresses lawmakers after being sworn in Thursday. She won a special election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Steve Knight, who was elected to the 25th Congressional District. The Associated Press

With consistently low voter turnouts, there’s chatter to expand the electoral pool by lowering the voting age or even by requiring people to vote. Has anyone considered that too few voters might be the result of too many special elections?

Last week, San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos introduced a measure to lower the voting age to 16 for municipal elections, apparently forgetting how shallow high school elections can be. Then President Barack Obama suggested that mandatory voting “would counteract money more than anything,” apparently because we don’t have enough low-information voters to manipulate with big-money campaign propaganda.

Neither idea is likely to happen, but special elections are happening in droves.

From 2000 to 2010, California had 32 special legislative or congressional elections. Since then, we’ve had another 34, including three state Senate contests just last week. In those, voter turnout topped 30 percent just four times, two in November general elections. Turnout was 20 percent or less in 20 special elections, and in the single digits in eight.

Local elections add to the pile. A March 3 City Council election in Los Angeles motivated barely 10 percent of eligible voters. A special election is slated for April 7 for Sacramento City Council District 6, and one on May 12 for an open trustee seat in the Twin Rivers Unified School District.

You can see how voter fatigue might set in.

Some suggest that the governor fill all legislative and U.S. House vacancies by appointment, which he already is empowered to do for the U.S. Senate and county boards of supervisors. (And which school boards lawfully can do with trustees.)

That idea would address several problems. Special elections are expensive. That Sacramento council election will cost taxpayers an estimated $200,000; the Twin Rivers election will cost $113,000. A 2013 special election in the 32nd Senate District covering Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties cost $2 million – and voter turnout was 10 percent. Los Angeles County has spent $12 million on more than a dozen special elections over the last decade.

The cost for taxpayers is even more appalling since elected officials spend less time governing while campaigning for open seats. With appointments, lawmakers can do their jobs instead of working to get the next one.

Special elections are so common that they feel less like elections and more like vehicles serving the ambitions of politicians. The Sacramento council seat became available after Kevin McCarty jumped to a state Assembly seat, which had been vacated by Roger Dickinson, who ran for a state Senate seat, unsuccessfully it turned out.

In 2013, Norma Torres succeeded Gloria Negrete McLeod in state Senate District 32 after McLeod ran for Congress. Torres served barely 18 months in the state Senate before running for McLeod’s seat when McLeod chose to run for San Bernadino County supervisor. McLeod lost to another recycled lawmaker, state Assemblyman Curt Hagman, who was termed out.

Some special election winners barely have time to get comfortable before they have to run again. The winners this spring in Sacramento and Twin Rivers will face re-election in 2016. Is that worth the $313,000 price tag for the special elections?

If it is, and appointments aren’t your cup of tea, then make lawmakers – or their special-interest puppet masters – pay the county or district for the cost of their elections. Don’t ask taxpayers to fund your job search while casting aside your commitment to the job you already have.

The Legislature is considering several bills aimed at increasing voter turnout, but nothing close to the proposal to do away with special elections. The truth is, people make the effort to vote when they truly believe it’s important to them. With so many small races, can you blame them for staying away from the polls?

Bruce Maiman regularly fills in as a host on KFBK radio and lives in Rocklin. Contact him at brucemaiman@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.

Editor’s note: This column has been corrected with the correct seat that Gloria Negrete McLeod sought after leaving Congress and who lost to Curt Haman in the congressional race.

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