California Turnout in Special Elections Has Declined by One-Third Since Top-Two Rules Came into Force

Many large newspapers in California are bemoaning the very low turnout in special U.S. House and legislative elections recently. Some newspapers are editorializing in favor of eliminating special elections for the legislature, and advocating that the Constitution be changed to let the Governor appoint legislators to fill vacant seats. See this Los Angeles Times editorial, and this Santa Rosa Press Democrat editorial.

The newspapers are correct that voter turnout in recent special elections has been low. Ever since the top-two rules were in force, starting in 2011, the median voter turnout in California special legislative and U.S. House elections has been 13.84%. The average has been 15.80%. There have been 19 special elections under top-two rules.

If one looks at special elections for U.S. House and legislature in the period just before top-two rules went into effect, one notes that the median turnout was 20.27% and the average turnout was 21.93%. That covers the special elections held in 2009 and 2010, and also the special election held January 4, 2011, because it was held under the old rules.

Thus, whether one uses the median turnout, or the average turnout, turnout is approximately one-third lower under the top-two rules than in the corresponding period of time before it went into effect. One reason for lower turnout is that top-two makes it impossible for minor party candidates to get into the run-off, if there is one. Under the old rules for special elections, which were blanket primary elections, the top vote-getter from each party went into the run-off, if there was one (and there usually was a run-off). This encouraged minor party members to run, because they could campaign for a longer period of time. Also, under the old rules, minor party members only needed 150 signatures to avoid paying the filing fee, but now they need either 3,000 or 1,500, depending on whether they are running for U.S. House/State Senate, or Assembly.

The new rules also discourage independent candidates. Under the old rules, they were always included in the run-off, if there was one. Also, under the old rules, they could have the word “independent” on the ballot; now they have the less-appealing “no party preference.” And under the old rules, write-in space was on the run-off ballot, but that is no longer true.

Minor parties sometimes did well in special elections, under the old rules. An American Independent Party nominee got 10.2% in the State Senate 37th run-off held June 8, 2010. A Peace & Freedom Party nominee got 8.45% in the State Senate 26th run-off held May 19, 2009. A Green got 6.2% in the Assembly 72nd run-off on January 12, 2010. A Libertarian got 5.2% in the US House 32nd run-off on July 14, 2009.

The calculations above do not include the two instances in which a special election was held simultaneously with a regularly-scheduled general election, because obviously the turnout for that special election was unusually high simply because it was held on a regular election day.


California Turnout in Special Elections Has Declined by One-Third Since Top-Two Rules Came into Force — 6 Comments

  1. Candidate/Incumbent rank order lists for legislator replacements.

    Guvs to fill executive vacancies.

    Supreme Courts to fill judicial vacancies.

    NO more super expensive special elections to fill vacancies.

  2. Any single-winner plurality election is going to give you corrupt results. But if you spend all your time fighting something you can’t control you’re hurting your own chances.

    Team psychology means forget about the other team and make your own team better.

    Perfect practice makes perfect. Practice, practice, practice…repetition, repetition, repetition…the team the team, the TEAM!

  3. If only we used Proportion Representation in the regular election, then we could just fill the vacancies from the list. Just declare the next person from the same party to be elected. No additional costs.

  4. CT, the USA Parliament has been using pure proportional representation (PR) for 18 consecutive years and it works great. Unfortunately, for some reason the Peace & Freedom Party entity as a whole has been able to respond to overtures for unity and cooperation even though it was their own member, Mike Ossipoff [Peace & Freedom], who wrote our vote counting rule (Hagenbach-Bischoff method) in 1994.

    Now we have a new company which is here to publicize the counting of the votes, it’s called the All Party System Co., board members can buy a voting share for ten cents and the holder can be a board member on one of several levels/geographical regions; International, national, super-state, mini-state and county micro-state.

    Please feel free to contact us for more info:

  5. A quite incompetent analysis.

    During the earlier period, 2009-2012, there were 5 special elections coincident with statewide elections. In all, it is quite clear that the statewide election was driving turnout.

    In the May 2009 statewide election there were two coincident special elections, one a special general (runoff), the other a special primary. The Senate 26 runoff drew 15.5% vs. 7.9% for the March 2009 special primary.

    On the other hand, the congressional 32 special primary in May drew 24.8%, while the runoff in July had a meager 10.7%.

    The two special runoffs in Senate 37 and Assembly 43 that coincided with the June 2010 primary had higher turnout than their special primary, as did the November 2010 special primary in Senate 1.

    You wrote: “The calculations above do not include the single instance in which a special election was held simultaneously with a regularly-scheduled general election …”

    Since there were two instances did you include the November 2010 special election in Senate 1, and exclude the November 2012 special election in Senate 4?

    Your analysis does take into account the office being contested nor its location.

    In the earlier period there were 12 special elections not coincident with a statewide election. 4 (33%) were in Los Angeles (all or part), 3 (25%) were elsewhere in southern California, and 5 (42%) were in the remainder of the state.

    In the Top-2 era there were 19 special elections not coincident with a general election. 12 (63%) were in Los Angeles, 2(11%) were elsewhere in Southern California, and 5 (26%) were in the remainder of the state.

    All 10 special elections elsewhere in the state have exceeded 20% turnout. Only one of 16 special elections in Los Angeles have seen turnout above 20% (Congression 36, a Top 2 runoff in July 2011). 8 of the LA specials have been below 10%.

    Mass media, particularly television, tend not to cover elections that will only be of interest to 5% of their viewers. If a LA TV station mentions a special election it will be at the end of the newscast, “Election officials expect abysmal turnout in the special election for Assembly District 81.” To which the co-anchor responds, “So be sure to vote, wherever that is”

    District boundaries in urban areas can be quite convoluted, and there may be no clear association between a community and its legislative district.

    Los Angeles also has quite low rates for permanent by-mail voters. If voters don’t hear about an election, or do not receive a ballot, they won’t vote.

    Turnouts are highest where there are multiple local media for a single district. The special election is important for them, since it to replace their sole legislator.

    Most of the special elections in the Top-2 era have been for the legislature, 8 Assembly (42%) and 8 Senate (42%, vs 3 Congressional (16%). In the earlier period, there were 4 Assembly (33%), 5 Senate (42%), and 3 Congressional (25%).

    Congressional specials tend to have higher turnout, while senate specials often have higher turnout than assembly specials. With more assembly specials, and fewer congressional specials during the Top-2 era, turnout will be lower among all “elections”

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