As the mayoral candidates trade barbs about the costs of various programs and priorities, there’s one big-ticket item that often gets overlooked: the special election itself.

In 2013 alone, the city took on three special elections and a corresponding $5.4 million tab to pay for them. It’s preparing to spend at least $4 million for another next month.

An analysis of past city election bills shows those contests came with a much higher per-voter charge than other elections the city’s held in the past decade.

The unexpected 2013 races cost the city an average of $25.95 per voter, a massive figure compared with the 42 cents per voter it paid in the November 2012 election.

Local election officials say the reason behind those hefty bills is simple: Special elections often leave a city unable to split the bill with other local governments with candidates or issues on the ballot the same day.

“The whole burden of the cost falls on the city’s shoulders,” City Clerk Liz Maland said.

Last year, that meant spending more than $485,000 on the March primary following ex-District 4 City Councilman Tony Young’s resignation. Just 13,400 San Diegans showed up to vote.

The majority of that cash covered costs associated with voting at the polls, as you can see here:

The County Registrar of Voters, which directed the election, paid stipends to dozens of volunteers working at polls in the City Council district and spent thousands on printing and supplies.

The price tag associated with mail-ballot voters – who actually outnumbered those who showed up to the polls – was significantly less.

County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu says that’s been the case for years.

And this comparison he provided shows that voters mailed in their ballots far more often than they showed up to the polls in all six special elections his office orchestrated in 2013. (Vu’s office serves the entire county, so that number includes three more previously unscheduled races outside the city.)

Graphic provided by the San Diego County Registrar of Voters

More than half of county voters have voted by mail in all major elections since the 2010 governor’s race.

So, if more San Diegans are voting by mail – particularly in special elections – shouldn’t elections be cheaper?

It doesn’t work that way.

Under the current system, Vu’s office essentially has to conduct two elections: one for voters who mail in their ballots and another for those who prefer to show up at the polls. Current state election laws require it.

So he’s supportive of the County Board of Supervisors’ recent push to lobby the state to let local governments hold mail-only elections.

Vu estimates eliminating poll voting in special elections could cut related costs by 40 to 50 percent.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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