Special election musical chairs

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"Special election musical chairs" is a term used by editorialists to describe a series of special elections triggered by the mid-term resignation or death of an officeholder, with elections being won by other officeholders, triggering further special elections until either the next election required to replace a vacant office is scheduled on a regular election day or the winner of an election does not create a vacancy in any elected office.

It is represented well by a series of five special elections that were held in the Oakland-Berkeley area from April 1998 to April 1999, due to: a political retirement, elected officials seeking higher office, and the requirements for filling mid-term vacancies under California election law. Near the end of it, there had been so many elections held that voters were increasingly unwilling to participate, and turnout fell to 15% of registered voters, one of the lowest turnouts in California history. The "musical chairs" began with the mid-term retirement of well-known Congressman Ron Dellums, and ended one year later with the unexpected election to the California State Assembly of Green Party candidate Audie Bock.

April 7, 1998: special Congressional election

Ron Dellums.jpg

On November 17, 1997, 27-year veteran Congressman Ron Dellums announced that he was retiring from Congress. Having represented the Oakland-Berkeley area since 1970 and first elected as anti-Vietnam War activist, the 61-year-old Dellums said: "Now I choose to make a personal decision and to empower myself to regain my life. It's important for me to now move on.".[1]

But rather than serve the rest of his 2-year term (which was set to expire in January 1999), Dellums announced that he would step down effective February 1998. Therefore, a special election would have to be called, and was scheduled for April 7, 1998. Upon stepping down, Dellums endorsed a long-time aide, Barbara Lee, who at the time was representing the Berkeley-Oakland area in the California State Senate.

With strong support from a popular incumbent, Barbara Lee faced little opposition in the April 7th special election. She was elected to Congress with 67% of the vote, defeating fellow Democrats Greg Harper and Randall Stewart, and Republican Charlie Sanders.[2] Voter turnout was 16%.

As Lee took office immediately, Lee had to give up her State Senate seat, triggering a special election, called for September 1, 1998.

September 1, 1998: special State Senate election

Unlike the Congressional race, where Lee had no significant opposition, the special election for Lee's Senate seat was fiercely contested by local Democrats. Because the California legislature has term limits, there are many politicians seeking higher office—and many viewed the special election as a rare opportunity to run for a Senate seat without risking their existing office.

At first, two Democrats entered the race: California State Assemblywoman Dion Aroner of Berkeley, and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, also of Berkeley. Both were considered progressive Democrats in the Dellums-Lee mold, and shared a similar political base. Like Lee, Carson was on Dellums' staff for 20 years.[3]

California State Assemblyman Don Perata of Alameda "told Carson that he had no plans to run himself, but then after Carson jumped into the race, Perata did, too."[4][5] Aroner and Carson split the progressive vote, thereby helping Perata win the race.

The September special election had a 15% voter turnout. Fueled by a well-financed, absentee ballot-driven campaign, Don Perata finished in first place with 33% of the vote.[6] Dion Aroner came in a very close second with 32% -- only 900 votes short of a first-place finish. Carson finished third with 20% -- and other candidates finished far behind.

With no candidate receiving a majority, a run-off election was required. But it was not to be a run-off between the top two finishers (Perata and Aroner) because both were Democrats. Under California election law at that time, if no candidate receives a majority in a special election for a partisan office, there must be a run-off among the top finishers of each political party, not the top two vote-getters overall. Therefore, Aroner and Carson were eliminated from the run-off because, like Perata, they were Democrats.

November 3, 1998: special State Senate run-off election and statewide general election

The run-off was between Don Perata as the Democratic Party candidate, Deborah Wright as the Republican candidate and Marsha Feinland as the Peace & Freedom Party candidate. Because the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, running against these two candidates did not generate much excitement. With the November 1998 general election just two months away, the special run-off election was consolidated with the previously scheduled statewide election.

On November 3, 1998, when Gray Davis was elected Governor of California and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer was re-elected to a second term, Don Perata easily won the special election to the State Senate over the Republican and Peace & Freedom party candidates.

But while running for the State Senate, Don Perata was also on the ballot for re-election to the California State Assembly—and in that race he easily defeated Republican Linda Marshall. Because he could not legally hold a seat in both houses of the legislature, Perata announced on November 4 that he would resign his Assembly seat as soon as possible.[7]

Therefore, a special election was called for Perata's Assembly seat on February 2, 1999.

February 2, 1999: special State Assembly election

Now there was a special election for the 16th Assembly district, which covered most of Oakland, Piedmont, and Alameda. Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris (who had represented the district from 1977-1991 in the state Assembly) entered the race, and was heavily supported by the California Democratic Party establishment. But Oakland lawyer Frank Russo, a Democrat, also entered the race and received significant support from Democrats who were disenchanted with Harris. Audie Bock, a Green Party candidate, also entered the race.

On February 2, with a 19.5 percent voter turnout, Harris finished first with 49% of the vote.[7] But 49% of the vote is short of the simple majority to avoid a run-off election. Frank Russo came in second place with 37%, and Audie Bock received 8.7% of the vote.

Again, like the State Senate election, California law required a run-off election between the top finishers of each political party. Therefore, because Russo was a Democrat like Harris, he was eliminated.

A special run-off election was called for Tuesday, March 30, 1999 between Elihu Harris as the Democratic Party candidate, and Audie Bock as the Green Party candidate.

March 30, 1999: special run-off State Assembly election

Because Elihu Harris was the former mayor of Oakland, had previously represented the Assembly district from 1977-1991, had almost won the February election outright without the need of a run-off, and Audie Bock had received only 8.7% of the vote in the February election, Harris was heavily favored to win. On Election Day, he was in Sacramento negotiating his committee assignments.

But the California Democratic Party made a mistake that arguably created one of the biggest upsets in local political history. In an effort to boost voter turnout in black-majority, heavily Democratic precincts in Oakland, the party sent voters "chicken-dinner" vouchers that said that if they could bring their voter stub to certain locations proving that they had voted, they would receive a free chicken dinner.[8] This created an outcry among voters who felt that it was a racist and demeaning gesture—and it badly hurt Elihu Harris' campaign.

On March 30, in a special run-off election with 15% turnout, Harris lost by less than 1,000 votes to Audie Bock.

It was one of the largest political upsets in California history—as Bock became the first Green Party candidate in the country to be elected to a state legislative body. Bock's victory was heralded by progressives across the country, but was minimized by the fact that she had been elected in a very low turnout special election—after a series of five special elections in less than twelve months.[9]

Bock's victory ended the year-long Special Election musical chairs. In the following seven years, the East Bay did not have a special election for statewide or congressional office.

Retrospective analysis

Holding five special elections in less than twelve months cost the state an enormous amount of money.[10][11] With repeated special elections, voter turnout declined, placing fateful decisions of who would dominate East Bay politics in the hands of a small minority of the area's population who are generally more informed and more politically active.

Political ambitions

Some argue that Ron Dellums should not have resigned in the middle of his term and that his decision to retire prematurely caused the chain reaction of special elections. But Dellums's mid-term resignation wasn't the only cause of the chain reaction. Had Dellums announced that he would retire at the end of his term in November 1998 and that he was anointing state Senator Barbara Lee as his successor, the April 1998 congressional election and the September 1998 state Senate election would have been avoided. Voters would have chosen their new congressman in the November general election. But under this scenario, after getting elected, Barbara Lee would have then been forced to resign her Senate seat, creating the need for a special election in February 1999, and possible follow-on elections, depending who won the Senate election.

Election law for special elections

Another issue that played out in these elections is whether California election law should be amended to deal with how and when run-off special elections should be held. Section 10706(a) of the California Election Code, which governs special elections, says:

If no candidate receives a majority of votes cast, the name of that candidate of each qualified political party who receives the most votes cast for all candidates of that party shall be placed on the special general election ballot as the candidate of that party.

This law was passed in 1963 by Democrats in the California state legislature to deal with a problem that had plagued the party for years. The previous law did not require a run-off at all, and whichever candidate in a special election who received a simple plurality of the vote won. Because Republicans tended to be more unified than Democrats, this law benefited Republicans—who would often run only one candidate who would win in a crowded field of candidates, even in strong Democratic districts. The idea behind changing the law was to require a run-off so that, under such a scenario, the top Republican who came in first would then have to face the top Democrat.[12]

However, in districts as overwhelmingly partisan as the districts of the East Bay, this meant that the candidate of the minority party had typically come in third or fourth in the special primary election, increasing the importance of the primary, and leading to possible upsets, like Harris unexpectedly losing to Green Party candidate Audie Bock, who had received less than 9% of the vote in the previous special election.

Some people argue that this scenario as played out in these elections did not give voters a fair choice because a run-off should be held between the top two finishers, not the top finisher of each party. While Aroner, theoretically, could have challenged Perata two years later in the regularly scheduled election, political reality dictates that it is virtually impossible to defeat an incumbent legislator in a safe district.


  1. AllPolitics - A Look Ahead - 1998
  2. Lee follows Dellums' footsteps
  3. [1] Information for Keith Carson, Smart Voter
  4. [2] 25 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Vote for Don Perata
  5. [3] Manipulating the Vote
  6. Senate vote won by assemblyman
  7. 7.0 7.1 Perata Wins Assembly, Senate Seats / Dutra leading Zager in East Bay's 20th District
  8. Chicken Dinners Come Home to Roost
  9. Salon News | Another Oakland surprise
  10. 1998 California General Election Campaign Receipts, Expenditures, etc., California Secretary of State
  11. Special Elections in California - Costs of Special Elections, Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley
  12. John Jacobs, "Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton," Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, page 114: "What emerged was a solution to a problem that had plagued Democrats for years in winner-take-all special elections. Democrats often lost these elections because so many jumped into the race, splitting the vote and handing the election to the opposition. The more disciplined GOP, by clearing out the field for one candidate, took seats in Democratic districts they had no business winning. [Phil] Burton's rewritten bill instituted a primary and general for special elections. The top vote-getter from each party would advance to the general, just as in regularly scheduled elections, unless one candidate got more than 50 percent, in which case, that candidate was elected outright".