Monday, December 30, 2013

Are Special Elections The Unintended Consequence Of California Term Limits?

This assertion in a Culver City Observer article caught my attention in an article on the Dec. 3, 2013 special election in my mom's California Assembly race:
Since the advent of term limits, special elections have become the norm throughout California as politicians jockey from one office to another to avoid being termed out and losing a seat in what has become a game resembling musical chairs.  [emphasis added] 
I was going through my mom's paper work and her ballot for that election was still there.  
We'd tried to help her figure out who to vote for, but in the end, she had no basis for voting for one candidate over another and didn't vote.

It turns out she wasn't alone. A Culver City Observer article says that only 6.8% of the voters voted and that the winner, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas,  (60% to 36% for the next candidate) spent $60 in campaign funds per vote. 

Really, it was hard for a casual observer to figure out whom to vote for.  The mailings and websites were all slick public relations work and I had trouble finding anything that gave me reason to vote for one candidate or another.

But what caught my attention in the article was this line:
Since the advent of term limits, special elections have become the norm throughout California as politicians jockey from one office to another to avoid being termed out and losing a seat in what has become a game resembling musical chairs.  [emphasis added]
That's interesting, was my first reaction.  And it makes sense.  Are there others who have found this?   So I looked up  how many special elections there had been in California.   First, when did the term limits start?

The League of Women Voters tells us that a new term limit law came into effect in 2012:
In June 2012, term limits for California state legislators (Assembly and state Senate) were changed by the passage of Proposition 28. Newly elected members -- people elected to the legislature for the first time in 2012 or later -- will be subject to the new term limits. These rules are that they may serve a total of twelve years in either house, or a combination of the two houses. A person may serve all twelve years in either the Assembly or the Senate, or split between the two houses.
They go on to explain the old law which was passed by the voters in 1990.
Those officials who have served terms prior to the passage of Proposition 28 will be subject to the old term limits rules. California State Assembly members are limited to three terms (6 years) since 1996. State Senate members have been limited to two terms (8 years) since 1998. These term limits are lifetime, not consecutive.
The Governor and all other statewide officers except the Insuance Commissioner can serve two terms of four years, with a limit of two terms. This constitutional limitation was passed in November 1990.
The new law increased how long legislators can be in office in one house, but limited how long they could potentially be in office if they went from the Assembly to the Senate.

The lifetime term limit seems pretty harsh.  That means a great stateswoman would not be able to stay in office, even if her constituents wanted her too.  That seems a little anti-democratic to me. It also aims at the wrong target.  But then one district - like Alaska - keeping the same US Senator forever increased his seniority over other Senators.  Gerrymandering of districts causes problematic long term incumbency, it would seem, more than lack of term limits. (Though not in a US Senate race.)  But if seniority starts over again when there's a break in service, that wouldn't be a problem.  Ironically, California's current governor served two terms from 1975-1983 and the voters reelected him in 2010. 

Wikipedia lists the special elections in California since 1960.  (Remember, term limits were passed in 1990 and went into effect in 1996 for Assembly members and 1998 for Senate members.)  Here's how many special elections there were each decade since the 1960s according to Wikipedia.
1960s - 5
1970s - 13
1980s - 5
1990s - 17 ( nine before Nov. 3 1993))
2000s - 6
2010s - 7

This hardly looks like proof that there is a difference in the norm before and after term limits as the article suggests.   The seven special elections so far in the 2010s is high, but less than the number by Dec 1993 in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, special stand alone elections would appear to be costly and one would expect a low turnout - as the Dec. 3 special election turn out to have.  

A 2004 report by the Public Policy Institute of Calfiornia doesn't mention the increase in special elections outright, but says that legislative careerism hasn't changed. I've outlined their findings:
  • did not revolutionize—the type of legislator who comes to Sacramento.
    • accelerated trends of increasing female and minority representation that were already under way in California.
    • new members after term limits behave a great deal like their precursors.
    • Careerism remains a constant in California politics.
  • effects on Sacramento’s policymaking processes have been more profound.
    • In both houses, committees now screen out fewer bills assigned to them and are more likely to see their work rewritten at later stages.
    • The practice of“hijacking” Assembly bills—gutting their contents and amending them thoroughly in the Senate—has increased sharply. 
    • As a body, the Legislature is less likely to alter the Governor’s Budget, and 
    • its own budget process neither encourages fiscal discipline nor links legislators’ requests to overall spending goals.
    • legislative oversight of the executive branch has declined significantly.
    •  widespread sense in Sacramento that something needs to be done soon to provide more stability and expertise to the Legislature’s policymaking process.
    • leaders remain central to the process, and 
    • term limits cannot be blamed for Sacramento’s intensifying partisan polarization.
  • Term limits have had a mixed effect on the Legislature’s policy products. 
    • no effect on the breadth and complexity of bills passed into law,
    • recently instituted programs to train members and staff do not appear to improve a legislator’s “batting average”—that is, his or her chances of passing a bill or seeing it signed into law—although legislators who receive that training tend to write shorter bills that change more code sections.
Did term limits increase the number of special elections?  The numbers from the Wikipedia article don't seem to bear that out.  And even if there is a correlation, we can't be sure of the cause and effect relationship.   But it's not uncommon for people to generalize from their personal experience of what seems like a change.  And to believe things that fit their expectations, even without checking the facts. 

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