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State Legislature To Consider Doing Away With Special Elections

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

Aired 12/18/13 on KPBS News.

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.

Comments

Avatar for user 'richardwinger'

richardwinger | December 19, 2013 at 8:07 a.m. ― 11 months, 1 week ago

A better solution for the problem would be for California to pass a law that says if an elected office-holder files to run for another elective office in the middle of the term, then that office-holder is deemed to have resigned on the spot. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Texas law that does that, in 1982, in Clements v Fashing. If that type of law were in effect, office-holders would be far less likely to quit in the middle of their terms, because they would realize that if they didn't win the election for the new office, they would be out of a job.

The gubernatorial appointment idea is a bad idea. How would we feel if the US Constitution said the president could appoint people to the US House of Representatives? That upsets the distinction between the legislative and executive branches.

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Avatar for user 'roflagain'

roflagain | December 19, 2013 at 9:50 a.m. ― 11 months, 1 week ago

This year, a San Luis Obispo County Supervisor died due to a heart attack. The Guv replaced this moderate Republican with a raging liberal Democrat. This is not what his conservative district would have wanted. Any bill mandating that a Governor appoint to fill vacancies should also mandate that the appointed person be of a similar political persuasion of the replaced elected.

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Avatar for user 'Bahtat'

Bahtat | December 20, 2013 at 7:02 a.m. ― 11 months, 1 week ago

Democracy is expensive, but worth every penny. The first thing Anarchist's do is get rid of all the ballot boxes.
Elections for all elective office must continue. It is the right thing to do.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | December 20, 2013 at 8:08 a.m. ― 11 months, 1 week ago

What the legislature NEEDS to reign in is the state's out of control ballot proposition process.

Anyone with enough money can buy signatures and then buy advertising to win some vague, unprofessional, poorly constructed "law".

Most people don't research all ballot intitiatives thoroughly and vote on a talking point, paid commercial, or even simply the title of the measure which often reveals very little about what the measure would actually do.

Direct Democracy has it's bennefits, but it also has problems too which is why representational governments exist in most of the legitimate governments of the world.

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Avatar for user 'dboyle101'

dboyle101 | December 20, 2013 at 10:34 a.m. ― 11 months, 1 week ago

An election does not a democracy make. And elections should be regularly scheduled, not occur according to external events.

We should have elections only every two years, in June and November. Period. An election isn't necessary when a president becomes unable to continue in office. The Vice President takes over. Likewise, every elected official should have a second in command, a chief of staff or someone who is certified in advance as qualified to take the position. That would solve the problem of Governors appointing idiologues opposite to the electorate's thinking.

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