At the request of Governor Jerry Brown, Congresswoman Jane
Harman has postponed her resignation from the House of Representatives for two
weeks to allow the governor to consolidate the election for her replacement with
the statewide special election Brown hopes to call. The move makes sense given
the low turnouts in special elections.

On Tuesday, two special elections occurred in the state with
Republican Sharon Runner winning the 17th State Senate seat and Democrat
Ted Lieu capturing the 28th State Senate seat. But the turnout in
both elections was miserable.

Quick calculations based on the reported vote counts (so
far) and the number of registered voters in each district shows about an
11-percent turnout in the Lieu race to fill the seat of the late Senator Jenny
Oropeza; and close to a 13-percent turnout in the Runner election in which she
took over the seat previously held by her husband, George, who moved on to the
State Board of Equalization.

The voter turnout percentages will probably increase a
little when all the votes are tabulated, but those final percentages won’t be
anything to be proud of.

The governor, who must call an election within 14 days of a
seat becoming vacant, has to set the election anywhere from 112 to 126 days
later. To save money and produce a greater turnout of voters in the 36th
Congressional District, Brown made the request of Harman who agreed to postpone
leaving Congress to take over a Washington think tank.

Now, if the governor calls a special state election, the
election for Congress can be held the same day and on the same ballot.

Given the low turnouts at yesterday’s elections, (similar to
dismal numbers in most special elections to fill vacant seats), perhaps its time
to re-think the law on these elections to fill legislative posts in the middle
of a term.

If a state officer retires from office mid-term, the
governor makes an appointment saving the cost of an election. But, changing the
law to allow for gubernatorial appointments to empty legislative seats would rob
residents of a district a chance to vote for their representative.

Bob Stern, President of the Center
for Governmental Studies
, recognizes the problem of having elections in
which hardly anyone participates. At the same time, he is concerned that voters
would not be allowed to select someone to a vacant seat. "It’s a balancing act
between efficiency and representation," Stern said.

He also points out another problem with an appointment
process – would a governor appoint a new legislator from the same party to
which the former legislator who held the seat belonged, or would the governor
appoint someone from his or her own party, regardless of the former legislators
political designation?

Stern thinks the best answer is to have special elections to
fill vacant seats but do them exclusively by mail-in ballots. That should cut
down on the cost and hopefully increase participation.

Given the turnouts in special elections, there must be a
better way to fill these vacant seats. Any ideas?