Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Why Special Elections are So Special

Today, the Times-Union reported that George Amedore (R) is the apparent winner in District 105’s special election to replace Paul Tonko, who left to head the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Amedore’s victory means the Republicans pick up a seat in the Assembly, bringing their total number of seats to 43, and moving as close to .300 ( share of total assembly seats) as this guy is to 300 or this guy is to 500. Perhaps some of this is in order!

In fairness, a seat flipping to another party (or even another person) is a cause for celebration in New York’s state legislative elections. Incumbents win reelection at rates upwards of 95%, and the professionalized legislature (with comparatively high allowances for staff and ample compensation) prompts many Senate and Assembly members to make a career out of public service.

New Yorkers rarely “throw the bums out” themselves (that is, by deposing incumbents) but, eventually, some legislators show themselves the door, usually in the middle of the night (by vacating a seat mid-term). As the Brennan Center has noted elsewhere, between 1995 and 2006, more legislators died in office than were defeated in general elections. The bulk of legislative turnover, then, is induced by legislators who choose to retire, run for higher office, or accept positions with more responsibility. The latter option, in most cases, happens mid-term, and requires a special election to fill the vacancy.

Citizens Union recently released a report showing the high percentages of legislators that gained by office by special election (33% in the Assembly, 28% in the Senate), while making the larger point that the nomination process for special elections is inherently undemocratic and gives the winner an inside track to the powerful advantages of incumbency in subsequent elections.

Nonetheless, special elections for open seats have several qualities that are positive for democracy, and uncommon in regular elections. While plagued by very low turnout, these races are usually much more competitive than those when an incumbent is present, and usually much more reflective of the underlying partisan demographics of a given district. Paul Tonko beat his Republican opponent by more than 50 points in 2006, even though Democrats had only about a six point registration advantage over Republicans, and probably should have been somewhat competitive. In Senate District 7, Michael Balboni won his race by 16 points in a Democratic leaning district last year, only to see Craig Johnson (D) win a special election for the seat after Balboni went to head up New York’s Homeland Security outfit.

Relatedly, fundraising, on average, is more balanced between candidates running in open seats, because incumbents use their connections to build huge campaign war chests in order to squelch their competition. Challengers in open seats, by contrast, often times begin fundraising on relatively equal footing, though the margin may vary depending on a candidate’s personal wealth or whether parties pour relatively even amounts of money into the race.

So while we’re not crazy about the insider dealing that determines who appears on the special election ballot, we’re happy to see any elections that give voters (the ones that show up, anyway) new choices, on a playing field where both candidates have an opportunity to be competitive. It's unfortunate that those circumstances are so special.

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