Special Election Deadline? Who Knows?

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A funny thing can happen when the elected officials are faced with a deadline they are proscribed by law from missing: they can ignore it.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with trying to determine just how long Governor Jerry Brown has to cajole legislators into agreeing to a special statewide election on portions of his budget plan.

Ever since Brown made it official (and even long before) that his budget proposal hinged on voter approval of tax extensions and revenue changes, the Capitol has been engaged in a game of 'When's The Deadline?'

And with good reason. The statehouse often only springs into action when faced with an ultimatum -- be it one set by a chief executive or by the simple fact that time runs out (except, um, when it doesn't). And the longer that the governor struggles to find bipartisan consensus on the election, the greater that the chatter will be on how to decide when time's up.

California election law seems a bit confusing about deadlines when it comes to special elections, and so it's best to think of the issue this way: what's the bare minimum number of days that local officials need to know what's on the ballot?

With some exceptions*, that's 88 days before the voters go the polls, or 'E-88' in electionspeak.

(*The big exception is initiatives, which must qualify for the ballot at least 131 days prior to the election. That helps explain why the demands of some opponents to the Guv's tax plan that he go the initiative route are a non-starter, at least for this year's budget.)

Keep in mind that lead time is used by elections officials to design the ballot, have it printed and checked for accuracy, hire poll workers, mail out ballots overseas, etc.

Photo: Getty Images

The most commonly targeted date for the Brown budget election is Tuesday, June 7 -- which is 111 days from today. So, you might assume the governor has another 23 days to seal the deal, until March 11, right?


The 88 day deadline was the motivating factor in 2009 when then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators agreed to a budget fix that triggered the doomed May 2009 special election.

But 2009 may not be such a great template for 2011. For starters, the Legislature wrote its own ballot title and summary for each of those measures. That's not going to be an option this time, after a recent court ruling that says legislative ballot measures need to travel the same path as initiative ballot measures -- a title and summary prepared independently by the Attorney General's office.

Another potential wrinkle: a special election in the L.A. congressional district of retiring Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice). On Tuesday, Governor Brown announced that Harman was delaying her departure until February 28 -- thus giving Brown the flexibility to schedule her replacement election at the same time as a statewide budget election. But as L.A.'s registrar of voters Dean Logan pointed out in a phone conversation, a candidate election is more complicated than one with just ballot measures. After all, candidates must have sufficient time to file their paperwork, and a candidate election means a more complicated ballot layout, too.

Logan says the key for elections officials is lead time. In addition to the Harman congressional seat, L.A. County will also have to scramble to reprogram many of its vote scanning devices, which will be used for a citywide election in Los Angeles on May 17.

So perhaps even more than 88 days notice is needed? Perhaps. But on the other end of the spectrum is the fact that even the 88 day deadline can be gutted by simply passing legislation.

That's the drama that's played out several times in recent years when Capitol negotiations have dragged on, and on, and on over taking measures to the voters. After a Ballot-Measures-Or-No-Ballot-Measures standoff (over a water bond) in 2007, there was another last minute rush in the waning days of summer 2008 during the then longest budget standoff in state history. With the governor and Legislature sparring over adding budget reform measures to the November ballot, Secretary of State Debra Bowen urged them to just say no.

On August 29, 2008 -- 67 days prior to the November statewide election, Bowen wrote to lawmakers to tell them such late action was not advisable. Undaunted, talks at the Capitol continued. On September 17, 2008 -- just 48 days before election day -- she upped the ante in her warnings:

As I cautioned on August 29... putting any additional measures on the ballot at that point would jeopardize the integrity of the election. Adding measures to the ballot at this point... exponentially increases that risk and will likely mean many voters will not be able to fully participate in the November 4, 2008 General Election.

So if 68 days is the threshold for real electoral disruption, and June 7 is your election, then the drop dead date for Brown and the Legislature might actually be as late as March 31.

But waiting that long, as Bowen's 2008 letter says, is a real gamble. As mentioned earlier, elections officials usually begin mailing ballots to overseas and military voters 60 days from an election; that would leave only eight days for a lot of prep work... probably impossible, but most certainly Herculean and expensive.

(The L.A. congressional special election might also be a problem on the overseas ballot issue, given a new federal law requires those ballots to actually be in the mail at least 45 days before an election.)

The bottom line is that lawmakers can rejigger the process in a number of ways. But under any scenario, getting beyond March 11 is risky business.

Of course, March 15 would be a far more fun date for pondering and writing about a budget pact that will, no doubt, be a tough sell to voters...

Note: Due to some sloppy editing on my part, the original posting had the wrong date for E-88... even though I'd done the math correctly (which was no small feat for a journalist). 88 days before June 7 is Friday, March 11. -- JM

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
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