Citing Costs, Some GOP Governors Refuse to Hold Special Elections

Florida's Rick Scott and Wisconsin's Scott Walker say it's about the money. Democrats -- emboldened after a series of wins, including on Tuesday -- say the Republicans are trying to avoid losing more legislative seats.
by | February 14, 2018
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker (AP/Scott Bauer)

How much is political representation worth? It seems like a ridiculous question to ask in a democracy, but it's one that keeps coming up.

The governors of Florida and Wisconsin have each declined to call special elections to fill pairs of vacant legislative seats in their states, both arguing that the benefit doesn't justify the expense.

Walker in particular has been singled out for criticism by Democrats who complain that he's ducking competition. He's refused to call special elections to fill a state House seat and a state Senate seat opened late last year by appointments to his administration. 

"It would be a waste of taxpayer money to hold special elections because these seats would not be filled until after the legislature adjourns," says Amy Hasenberg, press secretary for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he followed the guidance of local election officials, who warned that the cost of additional special elections would be prohibitive -- possibly in excess of $1 million each.

“The justification of the enormous cost is hard to swallow,” Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley told the Tampa Bay Times last month.

The costs may be steep, and holding a special election so close to the next regularly scheduled one in November strikes many people as unnecessary. Take a separate upcoming special House race in the Miami area: It's expected to cost the county $1.2 million. The primary is set for Feb. 20, and the general election is in May. Whoever wins will then have to turn around and run for the same position in a primary in August and the general election in November. That means competing in up to four elections in nine months for the same post.

“It’s kind of ridiculous,” Jose Pazos, a candidate in the February GOP primary, told the Miami Herald.

But leaving seats vacant for months or even a year means that constituents are left without representation. There may not be any regular legislative business scheduled, but there's always the possibility of a special session. Not to mention preparation for the next session. And then there's the question of providing constituent service, particularly in states where lawmakers have limited or no staff.

Some say the governors, both Republicans, are leaving seats open for political reasons. Democrats have been on a hot streak in special elections, including the capture of a Wisconsin Senate seat long held by Republicans last month and a Florida House seat on Tuesday picked up by Democratic attorney Margaret Good in a district that had been held by Republicans and carried by President Trump in 2016.

"The ballot might as well have read Republicans vs. the Blue Wave," according to the Tampa Bay Times.

"The emerging trend of GOP governors refusing to call special elections to fill vacant seats is both deeply troubling and real evidence of Republicans' growing fear," says Carolyn Fiddler, who tracks state politics for the liberal website Daily Kos. "It's a pathetic and shameful way to avoid further election losses."

There were no other partisan turnovers in the other special legislative elections held this week in Georgia, Minnesota and Oklahoma, although notably, the victory by assisted living executive John LaHood in a Georgia House race represented a large percentage point increase over Trump's 2016 performance in the district.

Granted, there can be gamesmanship involved when it comes to the timing and circumstances of special elections.

Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, set April 24 as the date for special elections to fill nine Assembly seats and two Senate seats. Progressives had lobbied him to call elections earlier since the state's budget deadline is March 31. Liberals have long faulted Cuomo for giving at least tacit approval to a rump group of Senate Democrats who have caucused with Republicans, giving the GOP effective control of the chamber. They now complain he is stalling to preserve that status quo.

"Shamefully late," tweeted TrueBlueNY, a progressive group. "1.8 million NYers will be unrepresented during budget process due to @NYGovCuomo's fear of a Democratic majority in the NY Senate."

In half the states, legislative vacancies are filled by appointment, either by the governor or parties or some combination thereof. In New York, nominees for special elections are picked by local party committees. The result is that nearly 30 percent of state lawmakers were originally hand-picked by their parties rather than winning through open competition. In Illinois, almost half of state senators -- 26 out of 59 -- similarly got their jobs at first by appointment from party committees.

Appointing legislators may seem anti-democratic, but holding fresh elections creates complications as well, even putting aside the question of expense. Elections can't always be held promptly. Holding primaries and sending ballots to members of the military serving overseas means pushing the date for general elections out quite a bit.

"It's not as simple as the governor calling an election and holding it the next day," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida at Tampa.

It would be best, as happens in most cases, if politicians elected to an office would hold the seat through the entirety of their term. But with 7,400 legislators around the country, there are always dozens who leave prematurely, for any number of reasons.

Most citizens would prefer not having to go without representation. That's why most states that call for special elections require that they be held within certain timeframes.

Walker's been accused of ignoring Wisconsin's statute on this point, which reads, “Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the Assembly occurring before the 2nd Tuesday in May in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat shall be filled as promptly as possible by special election.”

Hasenberg, his spokeswoman, notes that the two current vacancies occurred in 2017, so special elections are not required under this statute. That interpretation may be correct, but it does seem to run counter to the spirit of the law.

"Our country is built on the belief that every American deserves to have their voice represented in the legislative process," says Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "By refusing to call for special elections, these governors are effectively silencing thousands of voices."