Placer County facing $3.25 million in special election costs this year

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The price tag for elections is sky-high in Placer County in 2011. Estimates are that as many as four special elections could take place before the start of summer and cost the county nearly $3.25 million. County Clerk-Registrar of Voters Jim McCauley pays the bills when an election occurs in Placer County. This year, with one special election for state Senate District 1 already on the books and costing $600,000 to $650,000, three more could be in the offing for voters by the end of the spring. A special election for Assembly District 4 was called this week for March 8 by Gov. Jerry Brown. If one candidate from a field that could number half a dozen or more by Election Day doesn’t win a majority of votes, the top two vote-getters will be on the ballot for a second election May 3. McCauley estimated Thursday that the cost for the special election in March would be $800,000 because more voters are within District 4 boundaries than the Senate district. If the District 4 race moves into a second round, it would cost another $800,000, he said. And if Brown goes ahead with a statewide special election in June on budget proposals, McCauley said that would cost another $1 million within Placer County alone. Where will the money come from? McCauley said he’s trying to find as much in cost savings as he can as he deals with the possibility of four special elections in six months. But there is no provision under the law for special elections to be paid for by the state. “There is no mechanism for counties to be reimbursed,” McCauley said. “Given the current economic conditions we’re not expecting to be reimbursed for special Senate or Assembly elections.” Wally Reemelin, League of Placer County Taxpayers president, said the District 4 special election coming up would have been unnecessary and the $1.6 million saved if Ted Gaines hadn’t decided to run for both re-election in November as the district’s assemblyman and the for the open District 1 Senate seat. Gaines easily won the District 4 Assembly race and topped other candidates in the District 1 Senate race. But because of new rules under voter-approved Prop. 14, Gaines was forced into a second special election against Democrat Ken Cooley because neither garnered a majority of votes. That set up the Jan. 4 election won by Gaines – which established the need for a District 4 special election to fill the Assembly seat Gaines vacated by defeating Cooley. “We think he pulled a snow job on the public by running for two seats at the same time,” Reemelin said. “We’re reviewing it but we don’t know if there is anything that can be done about it.” From a dollars and cents point of view, the political watchdog taxpayers group was hoping Gaines wouldn’t win the Senate election. That would have left him in the Assembly and Placer County not facing the possibility of two expensive elections. “But Cooley ran a lousy campaign,” Reemelin said. “The result is another very costly special election. We don’t like special elections unless they’re absolutely necessary. This wasn’t necessary.” Bob Snyder, former Auburn City Councilman, said the costs are high and he’d like McCauley to look at ways like e-mailed sample ballots and vote-by-mail-only elections to save money. But he doesn’t fault Gaines for running for two posts – and ultimately triggering a second special election with his Senate win. “I’m for anything that puts good candidates in front of the electorate,” Snyder said. “If it costs more because of the machinations of the electoral process, so be it.” If Gaines hadn’t sought the Senate seat, there wouldn’t have been as many good choices for voters, Snyder said. “And he won,” Snyder said. “So it was a good choice that he did.”