A Hidden Cost of Sexual Harassment in Sacramento: Expensive Special Elections

Early voting is becoming more popular throughout the country. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The sexual harassment scandal that began enveloping the state Capitol two months ago has cost two state lawmakers their jobs. And now their resignations mean more work, and unanticipated costs, for local governments that must hold special elections to fill those vacant seats.

An April 3 election is scheduled to fill the seat left open when Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) resigned in November.

Fellow Los Angeles-area Democrat Matt Dababneh resigned effective the end of December, and Gov. Jerry Brown will soon announce a date for that special election.

And now added to the bumper crop of Southland special elections: the unexpected resignation of yet another L.A. assemblyman, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, who said Wednesday he was stepping down for health reasons.

Los Angeles County will have to bear the costs of all three special elections to fill those seats.

In fact, in the past 10 years, Los Angeles County alone has held 20 special elections to fill seats left vacant by resignation or death. The total price tag: tens of millions of dollars for polling places, voter guides — all the machinery of an election has to be cranked up even if there’s just one thing on the ballot.

“It makes things more complex, that’s for sure,” said L.A, County’s elections chief, Dean Logan. He’s hoping the three elections can all be held on the same date, April 3, when the election to fill Bocanegra’s seat is already scheduled.

“That would help with overhead,” Logan said, saying it costs “on average $1 million-$1.2 million to hold voting to fill each vacancy.” While all three seats are in Los Angeles County, Logan notes the districts do not overlap, so each will require its own voting procedures, ballots and equipment.

Speaking diplomatically, Logan said the growing number of special elections “takes time away from new projects and voting innovations,” such as a brand-new voting system the county is developing for the 2020 election. “It pulls resources away from that,” Logan said.

And one resignation often sets off a series of others. For example, when Attorney General Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate, Gov. Brown picked Los Angeles congressman Xavier Becerra to replace her. A special election was called to fill Becerra’s seat, and after a special primary and general election, the winner was Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez. He in turn had to resign to fill out the remainder of Becerra’s term.

That required yet another special election (primary and general) to fill Gomez’s seat in L.A. County. The primary was held Oct. 3, followed by a Dec. 5 runoff.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said it’s an unexpected cost that local government has to eat.

“There had been a law in place in the past that would have reimbursed counties for special election costs, but it sunset,” Alexander said, adding the law was never renewed by the Legislature.

In addition to the high cost, Alexander said, voters don’t like to be bothered.

“A lot of times people feel like there’s too many elections going on,” she said.

The result of these oddly timed elections is often lack of interest, with turnout as low as just 8 percent of registered voters. The turnout for that Dec. 5 runoff in L.A. was just over 9 percent.

Election officials have tried and failed to get the state to cover the cost of unexpected special elections. But Santa Cruz County election chief Gail Pellerin isn’t optimistic.

“There’s just no money,” Pellerin noted. “And especially now that the state budget is impacted with all the emergency fires. Who knows when elections will ever get paid?”

A constitutional amendment that would have avoided special elections by giving the governor the authority to appoint a successor to fill out the remainder of a term died two years ago — it needed a two-thirds vote to put it on the ballot, and Republicans worried that a Democratic governor would name people who were too liberal. There’s talk that it could come up again in the new year.

And Dean Logan said L.A. County will try once again to get state reimbursement for all the unanticipated elections. “This may draw more attention,” Logan said, “given the nature of what’s behind those vacancies” created by the sexual harassment scandal.

A Hidden Cost of Sexual Harassment in Sacramento: Expensive Special Elections 27 December,2017Scott Shafer

  • solodoctor

    There is one other added cost to the resignations related to sexual misconduct: the settlement between the accused and the perpetrator which is paid with tax payer money. This policy needs to change. Why should the tax payer be responsible for misdeeds by an elected official? He, or she, should be held financially, as well as legally, responsible for their own actions.


Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED’s Politics and Government Desk. When he’s not asking questions you’ll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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