Even $400,000 is an exorbitant amount to pay for an election in which the winner would serve in the office for about six weeks. The $400,000 figure is what state officials estimate it would cost to hold a special primary in September and a general in November to fill a vacancy in the 17th District congressional seat should U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., D-Poland, be expelled from the House of Representatives. A vote on expulsion is scheduled for Wednesday.
Local officials contend, however, that the cost of having a special election could be as high as $800,000 and that Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, which make up the current 17th District, cannot afford this non-budgeted item.
And so the question: If Gov. Bob Taft is not under any federal or state constitutional mandate to immediately call a special election once a congressional seat becomes vacant, should he do so in this circumstance? We don't think so. It isn't that the Mahoning Valley can afford to be without representation in Washington, but in light of what has occurred since January, we don't believe a month and two weeks will make a big difference.
Since the beginning of this year, Traficant has spent most of his time -- while receiving his congressional salary and maintaining offices at taxpayer expense in the region and in Washington -- preparing for his federal criminal trial on 10 charges, including racketeering, bribery and tax evasion. In April, a jury returned a guilty verdict on all 10 counts. As a convicted felon, he was advised by House leaders to refrain from voting on legislation. Therefore, he stayed away from his Washington office, did not participate in any floor debates and did not cast a single vote.
The congressman did return to Washington last week to defend himself during an expulsion hearing. After four days of testimony from lawyers for the ethics panel and Traficant -- he called witnesses and insisted that his criminal conviction was the result of a grand conspiracy against him by the federal government -- the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct unanimously voted to recommend to the full House expulsion for the nine-term representative.
Traficant has said that he expects such an outcome, which then raises the issue of the vacancy.
The governor has asked the Ohio Secretary of State's Office and the attorney general to determine whether a special election is an absolute requirement and if certain deadlines must be met. If it is determined that the governor must call a special election but that he has ample flexibility in scheduling, we would urge him to do nothing. On Jan. 2, the winner of the regular election in the new 17th District will be sworn into office.
Apart from a special election's cost, there is also the issue of confusion -- there would be two general elections for two congressional seats, both designated as the 17th District. The new 17th encompasses most Trumbull County, a portion of Mahoning County, and parts of Portage and Summit counties. There are four candidates in the race, including Traficant, who is running as an independent.
The current 17th has Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.
While we appreciate the governor's concern about the Valley's being without a congressman, we would suggest that once there is a vacancy, other members of the House would be willing to help out. Sherrod Brown, D-Lorain, whose district includes a part of Trumbull County, and Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, who is seeking re-election in a new district that includes half of Mahoning County and all of Columbiana County, may have an interest in seeing that the residents of the region aren't ignored.
Given that the House's calendar for the fall is expected to be light, there really isn't a strong argument to spend $400,000 or $800,000 on a special election. Neither the state nor local governments have that kind of money to burn.