Originally Published: May 7, 2015
Nearly a Quarter of State Legislative Seats Filled Via Special Election
Reforms Needed to Give Voters a Greater Voice in Special Elections
This week’s special election in the 43rd Assembly District in Brooklyn brings to 23 percent – nearly a quarter – the number of state legislators who were first elected in a special election. This high number points to the need to reform the special election process, so that they are no longer party-controlled coronations as opposed to elections with real voter choice.
While the dynamics of this race were different from other special elections, as a paperwork fluke meant that no candidate ran on the Democratic line, the contest still featured very low turnout typical of special elections: only 12 percent of voters turned out in the race.
Under current law in New York, there are no primary elections when special elections are called, but rather party leaders select the candidate who will represent their party in the election, not the rank-and-file party voters, lessening voter choice and weakening the democratic process. With an over 96 percent incumbency rate, the winning candidate in special elections is almost always guaranteed a long career.
Special elections are called at the discretion of the governor, who may choose not to call a special election under certain circumstances. When special elections are not called, vacancies are filled in the next regularly scheduled election. In 2014, 13 state legislative districts were vacant for nearly the entire legislative session due to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s choice to not hold special elections. The residents of those districts therefore lacked representation in Albany when many important policy and budgetary decisions were made.
Current law presents an unfortunate choice – either the governor can fill the seat through a special election, or choose not to fill the seat, potentially for a long period of time. Reforms to both processes as recommended by Citizens Union present a path forward to resolve these issues and create a more democratic process for filling vacancies.
To ensure a more democratic and timely process for filling vacancies in the New York State Legislature, reforms should be put in place prior to any special elections being called by the governor to fill any vacant seats, specifically to:
- Change the procedure for filling vacancies, allowing for greater voter choice, through either holding a:
- special election with a primary; or
- nonpartisan special election.
- Regardless of which system of reforming special elections is implemented, Citizens Union believes that signature requirements should be reduced to provide greater access to the ballot, and that an instant runoff voting (IRV) procedure should be established to ensure that the successful nominee or candidate receives a majority of support in the primary or special election.
- Remove the Governor’s discretion to not call a special election if the vacancy occurs on or before January 1st of a year the state legislature faces election, and instead require that special elections be held.
- Both houses should formalize and publicize policies to ensure the continuity of constituent services where there are vacant seats.