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Wrath on the ballot: $15.85-a-vote special election criticized

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A lack of voter interest drove up Placer County’s cost of Tuesday’s special election to more than $15.85 a vote. And many of the Assembly District 4 voters who cast ballots did so begrudgingly – and with hand-written notations to vent anger and frustration. County Clerk Jim McCauley estimated a cost of $650,000 for the March 8 Assembly District 4 special election. With about 41,000 voters casting ballots out of a District 4 voting pool of 171,000 registered voters in Placer County, that pencils out to $15.85 a vote. McCauley said election workers discovered that from 35 to 50 voters had written messages on their ballots objecting to the election being held, blaming Sen. Ted Gaines for the election, and protesting the decision by Gaines’ wife, Beth, to run as a candidate in the special election. Ted Gaines has blamed the series of costly special elections on an imperfect process and has initiated a bill he says could help ease the financial burden on smaller counties. As well as the hand-written ballot notes, McCauley said another “couple of hundred” similar phone calls were fielded by his staff. The calls came from both Democrats and Republicans and didn’t appear to be part of an organized movement, he said. “I’ve never seen that kind of backlash,” McCauley said. "There are a lot of angry people out there.” Because of the low turnout, which should hit about 27 or 28 percent of all registered voters, the cost per vote is just more than double what McCauley said is a normal election’s $7.50. McCauley said the May 3 election would also cost about $650,000. Registrars of voters in all four District 4 counties – Placer, El Dorado, Sacramento and tiny Alpine – weren’t expecting a huge turnout for what has turned out to be a primary election moving the two top vote-getters on to a May 3 runoff. Republican Beth Gaines will face Democrat Dennis Campanale if current semi-official vote totals are borne out by a final count expected within eight days. Republican John Allard trailed Gaines by 667 votes as of Friday. A lighter-than-anticipated turnout at the polls Tuesday produced even lower-than-expected turnout totals. In Placer County, McCauley expected a turnout of from 30 to 33 percent. Placer can attract more than 80 percent in heated presidential elections. Sacramento County turnout was even lower. With 39,830 registered voters in the sliver of the county Assembly District 4 drops into, just 4,730 votes were cast – or an 11.88 percent turnout. Alice Jarboe, Sacramento County assistant registrar of voters, said that estimates for election costs haven’t been added up but the division tried to keep expenditures down by not using outside help at polling places and having employees work varied hours to keep them manned sufficiently. “But we still had to buy ballots for 40,000 voters even though only 5,000 showed up,” Jarboe said. State Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, whose win in a special election Jan. 4 to replace the late Dave Cox in District 1, forced the March 8 special election, has introduced a bill that would allow counties with populations of 400,000 or fewer to be given the option of holding a vote-by-mail-only election. Gaines has deflected criticism in the past onto the election process for his decision to run for the state Senate seat that opened up after the death this past summer of Republican Sen. Dave Cox. Gaines said he was already committed to run for the Assembly seat he had held for the past four years, when the District 1 Senate seat special election was called. Gaines would win the Assembly reelection bid in November but also win the Republican slot the same day in the Senate District 1 primary. That advanced Gaines to a special election run-off against Democrat Ken Cooley Jan. 4. He won that election and Gaines’ District 4 Assembly seat is now vacant, waiting for the outcome of the runoff May 3, which could be between his wife and Campanale. Gaines has said in a past interview with the Journal that the unfortunate death of Cox came at a time when he had already committed to standing for re-election and won the primary. He has also said the election process is imperfect and his bill on voting by mail would help make it better. He couldn’t be reached for comment Friday by press deadline. Jarboe said that while Sacramento County would not be one of the counties affected by the Gaines’ bill because it has a population of more than 400,000, it could be an initial step that could allow voters to get used to the vote-by-mail-only concept. But Jarboe added that it would have to overcome distrust by many voters over the vote-by-mail system. McCauley said that he could see a vote-by-mail election working if a small number of polling places were allowed to open on election day to allow die-hard day-of voters the ability to vote in person. Auburn’s Gene Riggen said he voted reluctantly, given the fact he didn’t appreciate the special election being held. Riggen said he blames Gaines and voted for the lone Democrat on the eight-candidate ballot. “I felt the best tool at the time to show displeasure was to vote for the lone Democrat,” Riggen said. Gaines has his defenders, including former Auburn City Councilman Bob Snyder, who said he doesn’t fault him for running for two posts – and triggering a second special election with his Senate win. Snyder said he’s in favor of anything that puts good candidates in front of voters and the proof was that Ted Gaines won.