There is probably no more of a political and sensitive task than filling a vacancy created by the resignation of an elected official. In Chula Vista, the options are limited depending on how much time is left in the term of office:
” . . . if a City Council seat becomes vacant with more than 12 months and less than 25 months remaining in the term, the Council may fill the vacancy by appointment or call a special election; and so that in any special election to fill a vacancy, a candidate receiving over 50% of votes cast is deemed the winner with no run-off required.” (Source: Ballotpedia)
When given the choice, there has been a great deal of debate over how to fill those vacancies. Those who favored appointment did so because they said it saves money and those who favored a special election did so because they said it was more democratic.The last few times that the City filled a council seat, there has been a great deal of controversy.
When Council Member Patty Davis vacated her seat due to illness in 2005, people complained that the appointment process felt like a “backroom deal.” When Council Member McCann’s seat was temporarily filled in 2009 when he was called to active duty in Iraq as an officer in the Navy Reserves, there were threats of lawsuits. Now, this was only a temporary vacancy and a special election was not on the table, unlike when Council Member Casillas Salas’ seat was filled last January. In that case, the Council did have the option of having a Special Election but chose to go with the appointment process. In that last example, there was an actual lawsuit due to the way the appointment process was handled that is still making its way through the judicial process.
No one can argue that special elections are very expensive. Normally, elections don’t cost the City that much because it’s just part of the county-wide election process. These elections are, generally, held every two years in June and November during governor and presidential elections. The County of San Diego is responsible for all of the logistics from hiring workers to printing ballots. However, when the city decides to hold an election outside the regular schedule, it must pay for all of these costs.
In lieu of all this, Robert Ross, a Charter Review Commissioner, proposed a solution to this issue at their last meeting. He suggested having a mail-only ballot for special elections (this would not apply to regularly scheduled elections). The savings are substantial with this option*:
“Polls Election” Average Cost: $325,000
“Vote By Mail” Average Cost: $205,000
The Charter Review Commission voted (6-1) to go forward with Commissioner Ross’ idea and with good reason: It would seem to satisfy several objectives. It should satisfy those who prefer to have an election because it’s more democratic and it would be at a reasonable cost.
Of course, every method of voting has its own set of issues, but for most elections in San Diego County, voter participation is higher for people who receive their ballots in the mail and that is echoed in other jurisdictions like Salt Lake City and San Mateo.
Based on the past controversies dealing with the process to fill vacancies, the huge cost of special elections, and increase in voter participation this seems like a very viable option to consider.
Besides, it might just be the way of the future.
*These cost estimates are for special elections that are held on dates when Chula Vista has to pay the entire cost of the election.