State

Instead of special elections, let's just vote four times a year

The special election in California is over. The griping is not.

Here's one pair of complaints airing more often than "Law & Order" reruns: Why does California keep having special elections? And why are we forced to digest so many measures on the same ballot?

Those are good questions -- and still relevant even with Tuesday's election mercifully in our rearview mirror. In the weeks ahead, legislative leaders will have to seek a new budget- cutting deal.

And as crazy as it sounds, reaching a deal might require adding more measures to future ballots. Who knows? We could have another special election before the next scheduled statewide election in June 2010.

Before you voters howl in protest, please look in the mirror.

All these special elections and waves of ballot measures are your own fault.

Over the last century, Californians have voted in ways that put more lawmaking power in their own hands. We've used our inflexible initiative system to lock in place all manner of programs, spending and taxes.

To govern, legislators and governors sometimes have to unlock those programs. When they do, they're forced -- by the state Constitution and by the initiative process -- to go back to the people.

Propositions 1A through 1F were all measures that the legislators and Gov. Schwarzenegger would have been willing to enact themselves.

But previous initiatives and the Constitution required that they seek the people's permission.

It would be wonderful if we could upend our system and make the initiative system and budget more flexible. Politically speaking, however, such dramatic change is next to impossible. After all, the initiative system remains popular with the public. In the meantime, we're likely to have more special elections.

What to do? The solution is a minor paradox: If we want to eliminate special elections with long lists of measures, we need more regularly scheduled elections.

I submit that California should replace its crazy-quilt system of every-other-year regular elections (supplemented by specials) with a system of quarterly statewide elections. That's right -- let's vote four times a year.

Don't groan. Such a system wouldn't be much more costly, in terms of time or money, than what we have now.

With quarterly elections, the governor and individual cities and counties wouldn't have to call special elections. (We might even strip the governor of the power to call specials.) If a measure had to be placed on the ballot or a candidate had to be replaced, there would always be an election within 90 days to fill the need.

This would offer any number of advantages.

Among them: Better laws. Ballot initiative sponsors now find they have to hurry to meet deadlines for a particular regularly scheduled election, and often make drafting errors in the process. Having more regularly scheduled elections would allow sponsors to take their time.

The same holds true for legislators, whose own work is shaped by ballot deadlines. At times, they rush to put their own constitutional amendments on the next ballot. At other times, they rush to pass legislation to prevent a ballot initiative on the same subject from reaching the next regularly scheduled ballot.

In April 2004, workers' compensation legislation was rushed through Sacramento in the middle of the night -- lawmakers simply had no time to read the bill -- in order to beat a ballot deadline.

Lawmakers wanted to produce the legislation to persuade sponsors of a workers' compensation initiative to drop their measure. The legislation succeeded, at least in this regard.

For voters, a quarterly election calendar might make the measures they face less confusing.

At the very least, more frequent elections would make each ballot shorter. Instead of considering a dozen different ballot measures twice a year, voters would have to consider two or three measures every three months. This would give the media more time to cover and debate the details of each measure. Under the current system, news organizations focus on just one or two of the high-profile measures in each election, ignoring most of the measures on the ballot.

Would more elections cost more money? Not necessarily.

Statewide elections typically cost taxpayers anywhere from $50 million to $100 million. But by instituting a strict quarterly system, election officials could plan years in advance and perhaps cut cheaper deals with printers and other suppliers. A quarterly system could be combined with new measures to push voting by mail or reforms such as instant runoff voting (which permits voters to rank choices), thus reducing costs.

Such a calendar isn't novel. The Swiss, who developed the system of initiative and referendum that California has used for the last century, understand that ballot measures require a busy election calendar, and they routinely vote four times a year.

This is not a cure-all. Swiss voter turnout is nearly as low as California's. Over the course of a year, the Swiss face roughly the same number of ballot measures as Californians, but each individual ballot is shorter.

Yes, four elections a year may sound like a lot, but that number isn't that much more than what we have now. In 2008, Californians had three regularly scheduled elections -- a presidential primary in February, a statewide primary in June and the general election in November. In cities and counties where local races or ballot measures required special elections, some voters cast ballots four or five times.

Although 2009 was not supposed to be an election year in California, Tuesday was the third time this year that many Angelenos voted.

So bring on a new election calendar. We could use the rest.

Mathews is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

LOS ANGELES TIMES

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