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County Registrar Suggests Alternatives To Costly Special Elections

A polling place in San Diego County.
Kyla Calvert
A polling place in San Diego County.

Some polling stations were lonely places during the 40th Senate District special election last month.

"Out of that 13-hour window of voting at the polls, in one case, we had one person that voted a ballot and one person that voted a provisional ballot," said Michael Vu, the San Diego County Registrar of Voters.

One person at a polling place that’s open all day is a major use of resources. In that 40th District election, fewer than 5,000 people actually cast their ballots at a polling place, he said. The remaining 76 percent voted by mail.


Only about 15 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the election. The election cost about $1.1 million, Vu said, which works out to about $30 per voter.

In the San Diego City Council District 4 primary, fewer than 5,000 people cast ballots at the polls. About 20 percent of District 4 residents voted overall in the election, which cost about $355,000, meaning the county spent about $26.50 per vote.

Some argue that this high cost and low turnout mean special elections should not be held at all. Former state Senator Gary Hart argued in an LA Times editorial that the governor should appoint representatives to fill vacant seats until the next election.

"Current law requires a special election that often creates a chaotic, costly and time-consuming process of legislative musical chairs," he wrote.

The special election for the 40th Senate District was held to replace Juan Vargas, who was elected to Congress last November. Ben Hueso won enough votes to avoid a runoff, opening his state Assembly seat for another election. Lorena Gonzalez and Steve Castaneda are competing for that seat.


Vu said there should be other options for these special elections, including combining election days. The state Senate and City Council elections were held two weeks apart, but the upcoming council runoff and state Assembly election will be held on the same day, May 21.

"If there is going to be an election, let there be options available," he said. "That we can conduct this election by mail would probably be the best opportunity for that. That way we don’t have to do by mail as well at polling locations."

Any changes to the voting system would have to be approved by the state legislature, something Vu said lawmakers "should seriously consider."