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Saturday, Nov 30 2013 11:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Obliging the ambition of oath breakers

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    Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By ROBERT PRICE, Californian editorial page editor rprice@bakersfield.com

The chorus continues to grow for California to follow the lead of 23 other states and abolish special elections. With political job-hopping at an all-time high — Tuesday’s special election in Los Angeles County will make 14 this year — observers across the state have asked why we continue to hold single-race balloting at $800,000 to $1.7 million a pop.

Fair question. Rhetorical question, actually: There is no good reason, given the fact that voters are,

in most every case, obliging the ambition of an oath breaker. Special elections become necessary when politicians, having already asked for and won voters’ trust, seize opportunities, mid-term, to run for more prestigious offices or simply quit to take higher paying jobs.

Maybe that’s why only about 16 percent of eligible voters bother to show up for these things, on average. That was the turnout in July for the 16th Senate District runoff won by Hanford’s Andy Vidak (over Bakersfield’s Leticia Perez) to replace Michael Rubio, who quit a year and a half before his term ended in order to become a Chevron Corp. lobbyist.

Let’s see: foisted on us by broken promises, hellaciously expensive, and voters don’t bother with them. Why is this even a debate?

Of the 23 states that have eliminated these special elections, 11 allow the governor to make an appointment from a list of possibilities nominated by the withdrawing legislator, or by a committee of party or county officials. In 12 other states, party officials fill the vacancy without the governor’s involvement. In all cases, the replacement comes from the same party as the departing lawmaker.

To me, there’s just not enough of a penalty built into those scenarios. Except in the event of the legislator’s death or incapacitation, I would allow the governor to appoint a replacement without regard for party affiliation.

Why? Because legislators might feel a little more duty-bound if, by their resignation, their party is certain to lose a seat to the other side. Democrats who like the idea of a system that gives Gov. Jerry Brown the authority to further stack the deck ought to remember that a Republican has been California’s chief executive for 24 of the last 30 years.

Five states discourage seat-jumping with some version of “resign to run” laws. As soon as a salaried government official (the definitions vary) files papers to run for another office, he is regarded as having resigned his present post, and the special election fills both seats simultaneously. That’s an improvement — but not as simple or cost-effective as going strictly to appointments.

Special elections (and I exclude recalls and referendums, which cannot be eliminated) aren’t just incredible wastes of money and resources. They also contribute to the sense of alienation that voters feel about politicians and civics in general.

Voters look at elected leaders like state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon, under FBI investigation for alleged bribe-taking, and see a corrupt system built around politicians’ needs, not theirs. They see hyperpartisanship in Washington played to such extremes it starts to look like outright sabotage, and they doubt they can make any difference. They hear politicians talk about eliminating waste and fraud and then watch as those same politicians force counties to dip into their general funds to backfill the cost of these seat abandonments.

This isn’t the only state asking whether special elections are worth the cost and trouble; New Jersey, Ohio and Alabama are among those also debating the issue. But California sets the dubious standard with an astounding 35 special elections since 1989.

It’s time for politicians to stop playing career piggyback on our shoulders. Enough already with the special elections. Time to change the law with a Constitutional amendment.

Contact Robert Price: @stubblebuzz or rprice@bakersfield.com.

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