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Special Elections: Is There a Better Way?

Updated on March 6, 2018
DzyMsLizzy profile image

Peace, harmony, and lifelong learning are Liz's passions. She's outspoken on education and childhood and is an activist in local politics.

What Kind of Government Do We Have?

Here in the United States, we have a system of government known commonly and colloquially as a democracy. That is not quite precisely true; it is actually a Republic.

Under a republic, there are sub-types. We live in a Constitutional federal (federation) presidential republic. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so it’s easier to just say a democracy, even if that is not precisely accurate. We could shorten it to republic, instead, but the term democracy is of such long standing use, that is unlikely to happen.

When our government was first formed, after the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the story goes, a woman approached Benjamin Franklin, and inquired, “Well, what do we have? A republic or a monarchy?” His swift reply was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Of course, the key to ‘keeping it’ is active participation in the voting process. As we see almost daily in the news, this process has become quite subverted by big money interests, but that’s a whole different article.

The Election Process

As most educated citizens are aware, elections are held a couple of times a year to select representatives for various government offices and decide upon any issues.

Every four years, the election includes whom to choose as our next president, along with the other officials whose terms may be up or who have retired, and any issues (propositions) that may appear.

Some states have term limits on their state government representatives, who may not serve more than two terms in a given office.

This system has been serving well enough for the last two-hundred-odd years. However, there are some problems.

The City Clerk Is Most Often the Agency Handling Elections

A city clerk's office building in New York.  Election processes are handled out of similar buildings.
A city clerk's office building in New York. Election processes are handled out of similar buildings. | Source

What is a Special Election?

A special election is held under a few circumstances:

  1. An elected official has retired, resigned or died
  2. An elected official has run for, and won, a seat in a different official capacity before his original term has expired, thus vacating their prior seat
  3. An elected official has been removed from office for illegal activity
  4. Some special propositions, considered to be of urgent timing are put forth to be voted upon (Precious few things are so critically urgent that they cannot wait for the next regular election cycle!)

Special elections are very expensive. Why? Because all of the same protocols and services must be provided, just the same as they would be for a regular primary or general election.

Currently, in the county in which I live, it seems there is a special election of some sort nearly every year; at least every two years.

Voting Booths Need to Be Set

Just one of many expenses
Just one of many expenses | Source

How Much Does a Special Election Cost?

The short answer: a lot.

According to our county elections office, one particular election cost the taxpayers seven hundred fifty thousand dollars!

That’s for one special election. Sometimes, there is more than one such election in any given year! That adds up to a total, then, of a million and a half dollars!

That’s for just two special elections in a single county in the state.

How many times is this scenario repeated in various counties all over the state, and in every state? It’s a huge waste of taxpayers' money.

Wasted Dollars

A lot of money is wasted in holding special elections
A lot of money is wasted in holding special elections | Source

As a taxpayer, the costs for special elections come right out of your pocket!

How Elections Waste Money

They already waste a good deal of money anyway with this, even on regular elections, by sending the sample ballots and other informational pamphlets under separate cover. Sometimes as many as three separate mailings are sent!

Fortunately, with only a single seat up for grabs, that particular bit of waste is eliminated, but not so for regular general and primary elections.

The actual voting ballot, for absentee voters, is also sent separately.

Why Such High Costs?

First of all, the agency holding the election must pay all the poll workers, of whom four are required at each precinct. Then, they must in many cases, pay space rental for the day for those polling places.

Next, there is the cost in paper and printing of all the ballots for each and every registered voter in the area concerned. Add to this the postage for first-class mailing of said materials, and the cost of mailing out all the absentee (vote-by-mail) ballots for those who are so registered.

Our county elections department somehow manages to get their postage under a non-profit organization status--I'm not sure how or why--regardless: in the end it is a cost the taxpayers pay.

The most recent special election, as of this writing, is a single-issue ballot. At least, they had the sense to make it a mail-only election, thereby saving the cost of setting up polling places. A step in the right direction, but still, an additional cost.

Finally after the election, all of the same costs of tallying the votes and determining the outcome are the same as for a regular election.

As a taxpayer, all of these costs come out of your pocket!

What is the Solution? Is There One?

I believe there is. There would need to be some minor changes to laws regarding running for office, and how to replace sudden and unexpected departure from office for any of the reasons listed above. In short, I believe the entire concept and practice of special elections needs to go away.

Here are my own ideas on how to accomplish this goal:

  1. Disallow elected officials from running for a different office before their current term expires
  2. Re-set the terms of all elected offices of any type, from city all the way through federal, so that the expiry dates coincide with regularly scheduled primary or general elections (to effectively prevent the above from being an issue)
  3. Disallow retirement prior to the expiry of the current term of office (unless for serious health reasons or legal transgressions)
  4. Fill sudden, unexpected vacancies with a temporary appointment by consensus of the ranking body of the jurisdiction affected (mayor; board of supervisors; governor, etc)
  5. No special election may be held to decide any issue, proposition, tax, bill, or other item; such things are not so urgent that they cannot wait for the next regular election!

Yes, there would be some immediate effects, in that some officials would have their normal terms shortened, others lengthened by a few months, in order to sync up with the regular elections. It should not make a big difference in the scheme of things as a whole.

The major difference it would make, however would be one of cost savings, thereby freeing up that money for other items, such as infrastructure maintenance and repair; adding staff to departments that have been 'downsized'; subsidizing the cost of recreational programs, to make them affordable for all; and so forth.

It takes a great deal of work and effort to force things to be as complicated as they have become.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree with the ideas presented in this article?

See results

Can it be Done?

In short, yes, it can be done.

This solution subscribes to the “KISS” principle. (Keep It Simple, Stupid; for those unfamiliar with the acronym.)

Some people like to take the outlook of “It isn’t that easy.” Well, yes, it is just that easy. It takes a great deal of work and effort to force things to be as complicated as they have become.

Even if taking these measures would require a vote, it could still be easily placed on a regular election ballot, and I’m pretty certain it would pass.

People get fed up with having their time and money wasted. This sort of practice probably factors in to the apathy that has many folks not bothering to vote at all. These suggestions would solve all three of these factors.

There is a saying of “I can’t means I won’t.” This can also apply collectively to legislative bodies who might try to say this “can’t” be done. It can, and it should.

© 2015 Liz Elias


Submit a Comment
  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    6 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Ron--sorry, your comment ended up somehow in my 'spam' folder and I just found it.

    You are quite correct about what I am suggesting. Just make me Empress for a day, and I'll fix it all with a few swipes of a pen. ;-) LOL

    Thanks for stopping by and offering your thoughts.

  • RonElFran profile image

    Ronald E Franklin 

    6 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

    What you suggesting is actually an entire overhaul of our electoral political system. For example, your first reform would prohibit anyone currently in office from running for another office until their term ended. But in every presidential election cycle, most candidates are usually incumbent governors or members of the House or Senate. Maybe that is something that should be changed. But the upheaval to our system would be so massive, I don't think very many politicians or even just citizens would want to go there to save a little on special elections. But though I don't see much chance of it happening, I think it's great that you've provoked discussion of an issue most of us probably haven't thought a lot about.

  • Rodric29 profile image

    Rodric Anthony Johnson 

    6 years ago from Surprise, Arizona

    Okay, I can see your point when it comes to short terms from one year to 2 years. I think that there should be a clause that a person agrees to fulfill terms that are a least one year and half of terms that are two years.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    6 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi Nell!

    Yeah--I believe the problem lies with greedy corporations buying favors and in effect, thereby our very government. There needs to be an accounting, and the greedy politicians on the take need to be voted out. It's beyond disgusting!

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 

    6 years ago from England

    Hiya Lizzy, our elections are coming up in May, and guess what? yes (yawn) it will be the same old parties winning, promising this and that, and when they get in bang goes our say, and they will do exactly what they want as usual! ours and yours are very much alike! lol!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    6 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Romanian,

    Your situation presents one of very few in which a special election might be warranted; that of attempting to remove an unscrupulous politician from office. Although it can most likely be correctly said that most politicians are unscrupulous, few are bad enough to warrant this cost; they can just be voted out the next time they run for the office.

    In this sense, term limits are also a good idea. We have them in some states, and for the presidency. In my opinion, though, they should also apply to members of congress. There is currently too much of a 'good old boy' network there, and that is what makes for a too-cozy relationship with lobbyists for large banks and corporations to essentially buy the government for laws in their favor, and to the detriment of the rest of the population.

  • Romanian profile image


    6 years ago from Oradea, Romania

    In my country were set 2 special elections to suspend our former president, Traian Basescu. He won all of them, and remain on his seat until the end of his seat in 2014.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    6 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Rodric29,

    Yes, there is truth to what you say; but that two year interval still allows for a four-year overlap, to prevent all vacancies from happening at once.

    And some local agencies opt to have their own elections yearly, with overlapping terms for the same reason.

    What has happened locally, (and not for the first time), is that a person on our city council opted to run for a county agency prior to the expiry of her own term on the council. This is what triggered a special election.

    The two or four year cycle that is in effect is fine; all that is needed is to mandate that elected officials serve out their term in the original capacity for which they were voted in, prior to being able to run for an entirely different position.

    All I am saying is that special elections can be eliminated, and scheduled to coincide with regular elections. They are a tremendous waste of money and resources.

    The gender marriage issues, yes, were very important, but nonetheless, still could have been added into a regular election. Nothing is all THAT urgent as to require a special election. Especially not when you consider how often an issue or law is voted upon and passes, but the fine print states that it is not scheduled to take effect for a year or two down the road. Certainly, there is no urgency there!

    Thank you for your carefully thought-out comment.

  • Rodric29 profile image

    Rodric Anthony Johnson 

    6 years ago from Surprise, Arizona

    Election are held every 2 years to off-set everyone in government from leaving at the same time. It was done on purpose so that each election would not have a new government. We in this country like someone to be in office to help with the new people.

    Also, special elections are fine the way they are. I don't mind spending the tax dollars. I like having a special election if the proposition is right. The same gender marriage issues were special elections though they amounted to very little since the results were overturned by the courts.

    You are right that there are many interests, oligarchs that work to influence the voting process. I await the article you intend to write about it.

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 

    6 years ago from Central Florida

    Lizzy, I think your ideas make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, government does whatever they can to dig into the pockets of tax payers.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    6 years ago from Oakley, CA

    @ BobBamberg--Oh, I know! I, too, have worked at the polls in the past, and it is a very long day! Your points are excellent, and point up, in even further detail than I went into, why special elections are a waste of all that money, and should be eliminated, and everything set up to coincide with regular elections. All of that, to vote on a single issue or candidate? An absolute egregious waste of resources! Thank you very much for your added details!

    @ bravewarrior--Sadly, you are correct, and therein lies the problem. In our type of government, the "...government does whatever they can do to dig into the pockets of taxpayers" is exactly what they are NOT SUPPOSED to be doing! I do wish there would be an even stronger and larger number of people of the "occupy Wall Street" type of movement, to truly effect a change!

    Thank you so much for your comment.

  • profile image

    Bob Bamberg 

    6 years ago

    Good hub, Lizzy, but you cited the tip of the iceberg on the expenses. I have worked the past few years as a deputy registrar on elections, and the last two elections, I was part of the 3-person team that prepared for the elections. You wouldn't believe what it takes to prepare.

    I live in a city of just over 40,000, with 12 voting precincts. Three of us each worked about 12 hours a week for 6-8 weeks prior to the election.

    It doesn't matter whether it's a local election, special election, or presidential election...whether the turnout is expected to be 10% or 70%...the preparations are the same.

    We must test, replenish, repair and replace everything from ballot marking pens to voting booths and voting machines for every precinct. This includes assembling every voting booth to check for needed repairs or to remove graffiti or extraneous marks on the surfaces.

    We have to post Specimen Ballots in selected businesses and government buildings throughout the city, and the day before the election, must supervise the delivery of voting equipment and materials to each precinct, go to each polling place to set it up and erect the voting booths, then we must measure and mark the 300 foot-line, beyond which campaign personnel must stay with their signs.

    Election day is a long one for pole workers. They arrive at 6:30 AM and don't leave until as late as 9:30. The wardens don't leave, sometimes, until after 10.

    In my case, I'm the guy who, with a police officer, goes to each polling place after they've closed to collect the paper ballots and electronics from the voting machines. In the last election, I also worked the polls. My day started at 6:30 AM and ended at 11 PM.

    The security checks and double checks are incredible. For example, once the ballots have been delivered to us, there must at all times be at least two people in the room where the ballots are kept.

    If two of us are working in there, and one of us has to go to the bathroom, the other one must step out into the hall. The door is locked and the person going to the bathroom takes the key with him/her. This, of course, isn't because we're not trustworthy, but to avoid the appearance of or potential for wrongdoing.

    Phew...and with this lengthy comment I still left out a lot of minute detail that's involved. Our system isn't perfect...but it's the best in the world. Thanks for the reminder of that!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    6 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Mary!

    That is sadly true. If there is one thing at which the government excels, it would seem to be spending and wasting money!

    I'm glad you liked my ideas. Thanks very much for the votes!

  • tillsontitan profile image

    Mary Craig 

    6 years ago from New York

    Unfortunately the government never seems to see the simpler side of things. The more complicated and the more expensive seems to be the way our government goes.

    This is well written and very sensible.

    Voted up, useful, and interesting.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    6 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi, Bill!

    Thanks so very much. This is an issue that has been bugging me for some time. I finally decided to do a bit of research into the actual cost, and post my ideas on the matter.

    I do believe most things are simple fixes, and things are artificially complicated.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    6 years ago from Olympia, WA

    I love that you pointed out a problem and then, instead of complaining about it, provided viable solutions. Well done!


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