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Too many trips to the polls

Posted: May 30, 2009 8:22 p.m.
Updated: May 31, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Because of a quirk in California law, some residents who might normally rock the vote are instead being rocked to sleep by a dizzying succession of elections, according to a county official.

"During the last 10 years, Los Angeles County has held an average of 15 elections per year," said Efrain Escobedo, executive liaison officer for the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters.

Those 15 elections per year include statewide elections, special elections for city, county and state ballot initiatives, state and federal primary elections and the November general election, he said.

California's election code and the state's constitution conspire to create the number of annual elections, Escobedo said. "California is one of the few states that doesn't use the appointment process to replace vacated legislative seats," he said.

Other states, along with the federal government, use appointments to replace legislators who vacate their seats. In other states, the task of appointing replacement state legislators falls on the governor, Escobedo said.

However under the California Constitution special elections are used to fill vacated legislator seats. Under the California election code, the vacated seat must be filled within 126 days of the seat coming open, Escobedo said.

In the case of a state Senate seat, the problem can often snowball when the seat opens. Often a state Assembly member is elected to fill the vacant Senate seat, which means another special election to fill the now-empty Assembly seat.

The vacant Assembly seat is often filled by a county- or city-level elected official, which means another set of special elections.

"We call it rolling vacancies," Escobedo said.

California's constitution also requires members of municipal boards, such as publicly run water boards, to be elected rather than appointed, which means more elections.

Add in special elections for ballot initiatives, state and federal primaries and general elections, and voters in the state can head to the polls almost monthly, Escobedo said.

The high frequency of voting opportunities turns off many voters, Escobedo said.

A recent report compiled by the county Registrar of Voters included a section on voter fatigue. The document was presented to Board of Supervisors on Monday.

The report points to rolling elections as a source for voter fatigue. The report does not state how much voter fatigue leads to low voter turnout.

"It becomes difficult for election officials to ramp up voter participation and registration drives with so many elections," Escobedo said about voter turnout.

Special elections draw an average of 20 percent to 25 percent of the registered voters in Los Angeles County, said Eileen Shea, county Registrar of Voters spokeswoman.

In the May 19 special election, 19.9 percent of registered voters in Los Angeles County went to the polls. The results are not final.

"The canvassing of votes is still under way and the official numbers for voter turnout aren't due until June 15," Shea said.

The voter turnout for a special election pales when compared to November general elections, Shea said. The November 2008 election drew 81.9 percent of registered voters to the poll.

The November ballot included the presidential election contest, which normally draws big numbers. But even comparing a special election to gubernatorial primary elections shows the stark contrasts in voter turnout, Shea said.

The gubernatorial primary of June 2006 drew 52 percent of the registered voters in the county.

"Voters need to make time to vote. In other states voters need to make time once or twice a year," Escobedo said. "In California, they need to make time to vote once a month."

Voters may start skipping special elections because of time conflicts, and that can lead to apathy toward voting, he said.

But to change to consolidated elections would require an amendment to the California Constitution, Escobedo said.

A two-thirds majority in the state Legislature could amend the California Constitution.

Or voters can amend it with - you guessed it - a special election.


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