Special elections in California have become not-so-special. Which is precisely the problem.
As such, an effort is now underway to scrap unscheduled elections for the growing number of midterm vacancies in the Legislature and California's congressional delegation.
2013 has so far been the most prolific year of extraordinary elections in the state in two decades: eight special elections for the Legislature so far, with one more (and likely even more) on the way by year's end.
"For every special election, we go through the full song and dance," says Kim Alexander of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. "Every polling place is open. Ballots are produced. Vote by mail ballots get sent out. Registrars have to go through the entire process."
All of that is an unbudgeted expense for county governments. Los Angeles County registrar-recorder Dean Logan says since 2008, special elections have -- alone -- cost the county more than $14.7 million.
And the real kicker: voters don't show up.
Unofficial numbers in this week's two legislative special elections tell the tale. In California's 16th Senate district, which spans a southern swath of the San Joaquin Valley, slightly less than 16 percent of registered voters cast a ballot Tuesday in the election sending Republican Andy Vidak to Sacramento to complete the remainder of his predecessor's term.
Slightly higher (less than percentage point) turnout was recorded in unofficial numbers for a special election in California's 52nd Assembly district, where no candidate received a majority. A runoff special election will now be held on Sept. 24.
Electoral data since 1989, compiled by Secretary of State Debra Bowen's staff (PDF), shows the two lowest turnouts in more than two decades involved replacing a Los Angeles state senator who had left for local office... and whose replacement, at the time a sitting assemblymember, then triggered a special election for his Assembly seat.
Both of those elections barely registered with voters: less than eight percent of the two districts' registered voters showed up.
(An interesting aside: the assemblymember-turned-senator in that instance, Curren Price, just resigned his Senate seat for the Los Angeles city council, thus triggering one -- or more -- special elections to replace him.)
There are any number of reasons for all of these special elections. 2011's remapping of California's political districts resulted in open seats that many lured a number of sitting politicians into an electoral upgrade. Others are a result of California's former term limits law for legislators, that made extra years in Sacramento a tempting prize.
And still others leave their elected offices early and trigger special elections for a very basic reason: local offices, city councils and county supervisorial jobs, often come with a larger salary than the Legislature. Los Angeles city councilmembers are paid almost double the salary of a sitting legislator.
Whatever the reason, it's created what observers say is special election madness.
"I think it's a system that's really out of control," says Gary Hart, who served 20 years in the Legislature and was education secretary for Gov. Gray Davis.
Hart's idea, first floated in an April newspaper op-ed and now one he's pitching to legislators: allow the governor to fill empty legislative and U.S. House of Representative seats by appointment, a power already used by the governor for vacancies in the U.S. Senate and county boards of supervisors.
"Many other states do this by appointment rather than by election," says Hart. "It saves taxpayer's money, and it gets us to focus on governing, rather than sort of playing political games 12 months out of the year."
The change, an amendment to the state constitution, would have to be approved by voters.
Hart says the appointment system would also have two other big selling points. First, it would keep voters from losing a voice in elected office for what often stretches out to months -- think 'taxation without representation,' says the ex-lawmaker.
Second, expanding the governor's power to make temporary appointments might -- depending on the governor -- inject some less than usual suspects into powerful roles in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
Students? Independents? Blue collar workers? Perhaps, says Hart.
"With a gubernatorial appointment," he says, "you might have a little more diversity."
Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, says that special elections would also be cut dramatically if sitting lawmakers would be forced to resign their current positions before angling for a new one. Five states have a 'resign to run' mandate, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But the bottom line, say these observers, is that the current system is simply broken -- for elections officials and voters alike.
"It's kind of a no-brainer," says Alexander. "Everybody looks at the situation and sees the voters aren't participating, the counties are paying all this extra money, we're not getting the representation that we need," she says.
"We need to do something about it."