Sometimes it seems California Democrats and Republicans are playing the coming election season like an underground card game: making bluffs, calling bluffs, and going all in. But when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special election to fill a coveted Senate seat, it stuck five counties in the 15th Senate District with a multi-million-dollar bill, and local officials seem stuck with cleaning up the mess from political manipulations in Sacramento.
San Luis Obispo County’s share is expected to be $1 million.
Abel Maldonado, the former Republican Senator from Santa Maria, was officially confirmed as Schwarzenegger’s lieutenant governor on April 26. Legally, Schwarzenegger could have waited and combined the special election with the November 2 general election. In fact, that was what many expected he would do. After all, elections are expensive, complicated, and the deadline had passed to lump another special election into the June 8 primary.
Then Schwarzenegger announced there would be a special election on June 22.
SLO County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald had an almost frantic look in her eyes during a recent interview. Outside her office there was a palpable sense of impending chaos. With the regular primary barely a month away and the special election just two weeks after that, pulling off both elections successfully may be nothing short of a miracle, she said.
“It’s pretty daunting,” she said. “It’s overwhelming at this point.” According to the California State Association of Counties, the special election will cost the five counties a combined $3.5 million.
Rodewald said the governor “has saddled us” with conducting back-to-back elections. “To my knowledge, this has not ever happened and so the five counties that are affected are traveling in very uncharted waters and I fear they are full of crocodiles, piranhas, and hidden obstructions.”
The state is required to repay counties for special elections, but still hasn’t repaid the nearly $400,000 it owes SLO County for the May 2009 special election.
Furthermore, the tight schedule opens the door for voter confusion and for election officials and volunteers to make mistakes, Rodewald worried, which could lead to a challenge of the results. “When it comes down to it, if there’s a problem, I’m the one that’s going to get blamed,” she said.
Paul McIntosh, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, in a letter dated the day following Schwarzenegger’s decision, urged the governor to push back the election.
“Our concerns are serious and real; the June 22 election creates significant cost, liabilities, and potential user disenfranchisement,” he wrote.
According to Rodewald, there’s talk of carrying a bill to allow counties to hold an all-mail election or provide other cost-saving measures. But getting a bill written, passed by the Legislature, and signed by Schwarzenegger seems another impossible task. For now, she went on, she’s bracing for the worst.
Let the finger pointing begin
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg publicly called the special election a “bonehead move.” Officials from SLO, Monterey, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara counties complained an additional election would be costly and is unnecessary.
Republicans blamed Democrats and Democrats blamed Republicans. It’s hard to argue, however, that either party’s hands are totally clean.
“I’m sure politics played a part in both Democrat and Republican thinking,” said Wesley Hussey, a Sacramento State University political scientist.
Both parties stand to gain or lose a tremendous amount of leverage depending on which way Maldonado’s former seat goes. For Democrats, the 15th district is one of two necessary seats that could give the party a two-thirds majority and corresponding stranglehold on future budget votes. And such a majority would be devastating to Republicans who have historically been able to block Democratic budget proposals.
“Even as a special election you’re going to see huge sums of money and huge amounts of labor support and business groups donating money to this election,” said Cal Poly political science professor Michael Latner. “Because it’s a really important one.”
According to Hussey and Latner, Republicans have far more to gain from an early special election. Special elections generally have low voter turnout. But voters who do turnout tend to be more Republican friendly.
“I think the reasoning behind Schwarzenegger’s decision ... is special elections have lower turnout and usually conservative voters,” Hussey said.
If history serves as an example, turnout for the special election will be abysmal. The May 2009 special election drew 28.4 percent of registered California voters, the lowest percentage of voter turnout in the last 100 years.
As of press time, only three candidates had indicated they would run: SLO Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, Jim Fitzgerald (independent), and former Democratic assemblyman John Laird.
Just as Republicans stand to benefit from a low-turnout special election—especially given Blakeslee’s name recognition—Democrats would have a better shot in November.
“The Democrats would certainly love to pick up this seat,” Latner said.
Democrats outrank Republicans in the district 41 percent to 35 percent, according to the California Secretary of State voter registration statistics.
But Democrats may be just as culpable of political trickery to stack the election odds in their favor. Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear pointed the blame at Democrats for hindering Maldonado’s nomination as lieutenant governor. “Unfortunately the Legislature delayed [Maldonado's appointment],” he said. “Which would’ve saved ... a lot of money.”
On Feb. 2, the Assembly voted down the Maldonado nomination. However, Schwarzenegger called the Legislature’s vote invalid and sent it back for another round. By the time the Senate cast the final vote to appoint Maldonado on April 26, it was too late to place his Senate seat on the June 8 primary. “It’s because the Legislature deliberately delayed this [that] we’re in this situation,” McLear went on.
Perhaps most odd is that both parties seem to have screwed themselves. Senate Democrats lost a favorable budget vote in Maldonado (he voted in favor of last year’s budget) by pushing him into the lieutenant governorship and have now opened his district to a Republican-friendly special-election vote. Schwarzenegger on the other hand may have tarnished his reputation at the end of his last term.
“It really is hard to imagine why the governor would do this because it’s legal, so it’s not criminally negligent,” Latner said. “But it’s politically negligent by any stretch of the imagination.”
Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..