Musical ChairsImagine a game of musical chairs where you always win. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? That’s the way the game is structured in the California legislature.

State Senators and Assemblymembers can run for local or federal office without giving up their current seat. If they win in the new election, a special election is held to fill the vacant seat they left. Not only can special elections confuse voters, but they’re also paying the tab. Each special election costs taxpayers an estimated $1 million each,  and there were roughly 10 this past year in California, according to the LA Times.

What do the legislators have to lose? Nothing. If the legislator wins, they have a fresh start that often comes with a pay increase. If the legislator loses, they get to keep the seat they were willing to abandon in the first place; meanwhile, constituents lose out on having their representative’s complete attention while they run for office.

More importantly, one impact of special elections that is not well covered is their effect on low-income communities. If a county spends $1 million to fund a special election, that money has to come from somewhere. What are they not funding? Social services that aid low-income communities with putting food on the table, getting job training, and receiving basic health care?  Public safety and senior services? You get the idea. Why are we paying the bill twice if we already elected the candidate once.

I’m sure you get the point by now; special elections come with a huge price tag, interrupt the legislative process, can leave constituents without a representative for months before an election is called to fill the seat, and use money that could be better spent to benefit our communities. Not to mention, these elections are held independent of state and federal elections – and our last report proves that off-cycle elections depress turnout. Special elections usually result in fewer voters getting to the polls, 11% in some cases. So who really is electing our representatives.

There are some solutions to this epidemic. In the L.A. Times article mentioned above, Senate President Pro Tem Darryl Steinberg was quoted as saying, “The cost of these special elections and the delays for months at a time compels us to look at different ways to fill the vacancies,” Steinberg says. “It would be much better to have the governor make the appointment.”

While we have our doubts about that idea, there are some other options:

  1. Make the candidates pay. We could fine candidates who abandon their office early to assume another elected office, or require them to use their campaign funds to subsidize the cost of the special election they forced us to hold. That might be enough to deter some.
  2. Change the rules. We could rewrite the rules so that the candidate assumes the risk of running for another office while currently holding an elected office. For example, we could require a candidate to step down from their current position in order to run for another office (not after they win the other office), so there’s no “fallback” plan. Constituents deserve more than being the fallback; they deserve a candidate who wants to represent them.
  3. Get involved in their campaigns. Constituent groups could launch a “resign to run” campaign in which they ask candidates to sign a “resign to run” pledge, promising not to run for another office without resigning from the office they hold.

Musical chairs belong in family parties, not the California legislature, so let’s stop the music (and the waste of our tax dollars) and get back to business.