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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

State Legislature To Consider Doing Away With Special Elections

Democrat Juan Vargas greets supporters on Election Night, Nov. 6, 2012.

Photo by Spark Photography / KPBS

Above: Democrat Juan Vargas greets supporters on Election Night, Nov. 6, 2012.

A retired California lawmaker is proposing an alternative to costly special elections: empty state legislature seats would be filled by the governor, not voters.

The San Diego region saw its fair share of special elections for state legislature seats this year. Now a retired California lawmaker is proposing an alternative: empty seats would be filled by the governor, not voters. The state legislature could take up the issue next month.

Here's a refresher on San Diego's recent musical chair elections: Congressman Bob Filner was elected mayor, leaving his congressional seat open. Juan Vargas won that spot, leaving his state senate seat free, which was filled by Ben Hueso in a special election. But that left Hueso's state assembly seat vacant, so another special election was called to fill it, which labor council leader Lorena Gonzalez won.

The special elections for Vargas and Hueso's seats cost San Diego County $1.5 million and $1.05 million respectively (the assembly seat election was consolidated with a special election to fill San Diego City Council's District 4), according to Registrar of Voters Michael Vu. The turnout for both state elections hovered around 14.5 percent.

San Diego isn't the only place with costly and low turnout special elections—there have been 13 special elections for the state legislature this year, all with turnouts less than 30 percent.

Retired state Senator Gary Hart has a solution. He's been working with State Senator Darrell Steinberg on a constitutional amendment that would give the governor the power to appoint people to empty legislature seats for the remainder of the term. That means no more special elections for state seats.

A spokesman for Steinberg said the senator "does plan to introduce a constitutional amendment that would fill legislative vacancies by appointment rather than by special election."

"He is still working on the details to take an approach that's best for the taxpayers and the institution of the legislature," spokesman Mark Hedlund said.

Hart first proposed his plan in an editorial to The Los Angeles Times and said it will fix numerous problems.

"It will save taxpayers money, it will allow legislators to concentrate on government rather than campaigning, and it will mean that vacancies will be filled more quickly than they would through a special election," he said. "And I think these special elections just don't work very well. Not a lot of people participate so it's not reflective of the electorate as a whole. People who are poor, not well educated or attuned to politics oftentimes are the people who don't participate, so it's really a skewed group of people who do vote."

Hart does not know whether the amendment will allow the government to simply appoint a replacement, or if that replacement would have to be confirmed by the state legislature.

"That's subject to legislative negotiations," he said, although he prefers a pure gubernatorial appointment.

If the amendment is introduced in January, it would have to be approved by two-thirds of the California Senate and Assembly to get on a future ballot. Then the amendment to get rid of special elections would have to be approved by voters.

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