How Special Will the February 15th Elections Really be?

Interior of the Capitol Dome in Sacramento

Do you miss your daily, hourly or even by the minute coverage of elections? Are you in campaign withdrawal? Never fear! The special elections are upon us. On February 15 some California voters will have another opportunity to go to the polls to elect their state senator.

Special elections typically occur because of the death or resignation of an elected official. Both situations led to vacancies in the 17th and 28th senate districts.

While the two elections seem to have little in common other than that they are both being held in February to fill vacant seats, they have more similarities than initially meets the eye.

In the 17th district, George Runner (R) resigned his seat after he was elected to the state Board of Equalization. That district includes parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino. His wife, termed-out Assemblywoman Sharon Runner (R), among one other, is now vying for his seat. The Assemblywoman is the frontrunner in this cozy race of two.

This is not the first time Sharon Runner has sought to succeed her husband. She also won the Assembly seat he vacated. After Sharon Runner was termed out Governor Schwarzenegger appointed her to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board. Her opponent, Darren Parker (D), likely faces an uphill battle given Runner's name recognition.

In the 28th district Jenny Oropeza (D), passed away shortly before the November 2, 2010 election, but was elected posthumously. That district includes Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Torrance. There are eight candidates on the primary election ballot, though many are not viable.

The front-runner appears to be termed-out Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D). I was recently the recipient of his fundraising prowess (he's raised over $300,000 to date) as I stumbled across one of his slate mailers on my doorstep. The first campaign advertisement I have received this go around. In June Lieu unsuccessfully ran for attorney general. Given that the district is overwhelmingly democratic, it seems unlikely a Republican could pass the finish line first in the 28th. The other Democrat in the race, Kevin Thomas McGurk, a public defender, has been out fundraised and out endorsed by Lieu.

So what do the two races have in common?

First, these elections will be the first ever to be held under California's new "open primary, top two" election law. Under the new law, any voter can vote for any candidate in the primary election, regardless of party affiliation. Then the top two voter-getters (and only the top two voter-getters) proceed to the general election. So in some districts (though likely not the two districts subject to the special election) we could see two democrats or two republicans competing in the general election. The stated purpose of this new law is to elect more moderate legislators, people who are purportedly consensus builders who will help end partisan bickering in Sacramento.

In special elections, there need not be a runoff if one candidate garners more than 50% of the vote in the primary. At least in the race to replace George Runner, there is a fighting chance that Sharon Runner need not go two rounds in order to obtain her new title of State Senator.

The special elections will provide a test case for the new law. Some candidates are already worried it is working to their disadvantage. There are two candidates in the 28th district who are listed as having no party preference. One candidate is affiliated with the "coffee party," (the left's reaction to the "tea party") but was unable to list his preference for that party as it is not ballot qualified in California. Still other candidates in both the 17th and 28th districts have claimed that the new law has prevented them from obtaining enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. In addition, some are worried that the lack of party identification will lead to voter confusion.

Second, we can, in part, thank term limits for our crop of candidates. In each case the front-runner is a termed-out assemblyperson looking to step on up to the upper legislative house. In 1990 Californians enacted term limits, changing the face of Sacramento. Under that law, members of the assembly are limited to three two-year terms and state senators are restricted to two four-year terms. Once termed out, it seems our officials do not lose the desire to garner another job in government. Exhibits A and B, Sharon Runner and Ted Lieu.

Third, decline to state voters are key. In the 17th district, 37% of registered voters are democrats, 40% are republicans, and 18% are decline to state. In the 28th district, 48% of voters are democrats, 25% are republicans, and 22% are decline to state. These enigmatic voters could swing either election, although they're more likely to play a role in the 28th, where the major party registration numbers aren't quite so lopsided.

Keep an eye on these races to see how the termed-out legislators fare, what role the decline to state voters play, and generally, how special these elections really are.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday at noon. She is the Director of Political Reform at the Center for Governmental studies and an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Law School.

The photo on this post is by Kevin Krejci. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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