Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
But there are hidden, and more fundamental, problems, too. Turnout for special elections is dramatically lower than it is for general elections. This shouldn't be a surprise -- voters have to care enough to come out for just one race, while on Election Day the presidency or a governorship may also be on the line. A perfect example was the recent Georgia runoff. This was a high-profile race, yet turnout was only a little more than half what it had been just 30 days before. Similarly, recall votes for state legislators, to cite one of the more regularly occurring special elections in the 18 states where they're allowed, typically attract a quarter to half as many voters as regular elections. Therefore winners are chosen by a seriously skewed electorate -- generally the most committed or more extreme members of each party.
A second problem involves primaries. Even in places that require special elections, there may be no requirement that parties hold primaries, giving party leaders a disproportionate role in making the selection. In states where one party dominates, that party's choice can be tantamount to an appointment. In New York, this method has been used and abused both for congressional representatives and state and local politicians. Sometimes, officials appear to time resignations in order to force a special election -- and ensure that a chosen successor has an easy path to victory.
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