The voters deserve primaries


MARCH 24, 2009
    After watching two historically botched Senate appointments in Illinois and New York, it has become almost axiomatic that special elections are the best way to fill empty seats. But New Yorkers, if they are paying attention, will get a chance to see the other side of the coin in next week’s special election to fill Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s congressional seat. Unlike the Senate appointment debacles, the special election won’t be front-page news everywhere. But it should show voters why special elections are no panacea. In fact, as practiced in New York, they are an efficient and effective method to subvert electoral democracy.
    The Gillibrand seat is a great example of the problem. Because it is so rare for a seat to open, especially in a two-party competitive, leaning Republican district, it quickly shaped up to be an exciting race. There were a number of high-profile Republican candidates who were rumored to be interested in the seat, including John Faso, the 2006 GOP gubernatorial candidate; state Sen. Betty Little; and former New York Secretary of State Alexander Treadwell, who lost the 2008 race to Gillibrand. Yet they all dropped out, leaving a clear and easy path to Republican Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco.
    What happened? Why did prominent politicians back away from their chance to move up?
    It was the absence of a primary. Instead of the voters choosing the party nominee, a collection of party operatives made the choice. The party’s nominees were tightly controlled by an organization that would brook no dissent on the choice.
    Unfortunately, this is New York’s preferred method of filling empty seats. Because incumbents rarely lose, the nominee is likely to hold the seat for many years to come.
    The Democratic candidate in the 20th District election, Scott Murphy, also was selected in a way that avoided a primary.
    This ability to hand-select candidates has resulted in a closely linked development — local elected officials frequently appear to time their resignation to result in a special election. This ensures that their (or the district leaders’) chosen successor has an easy path to victory, without any of the messiness of voter approval.
    There also is a strong tactical reason to use a special election. Voter turnout is dramatically lower.
    When he was governor, Eliot Spitzer used this to the Democrats’ advantage, naming Republican Sen. Michael Balboni as his homeland security chief and picking off a key Senate seat. Though it was a heavily promoted race, turnout was significantly less than the regular election for the seat.
    New York’s election law has even worse options than special elections, including one that public officials are all too willing to use to further narrow political interests. For some public officials, even special elections run too great a risk. In 1998, Congressman and Queens County Democratic Leader Thomas Manton decided to hand over his seat to then-Assemblyman Joseph Crowley. He resigned the seat in June, just after the deadline for the September primary. Instead, the Democratic County Committee, dominated by Manton loyalists, chose the new nominee. There was a brief uproar in the press and among the many other contenders for the seat, but it did not matter.
    While there is no great answer to the problem of special elections, there should at least be a primary. Witness Illinois, New York’s partner in Senate-replacement disgrace. Chicago citizens are naming a replacement to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s congressional seat. It is a well-publicized free-for-all, with 23 candidates competing, including 12 in the Democratic primary. Chicagoans, unlike New Yorkers, will at least have a chance to make a real choice for the representative.
    Special elections are seen as a great democratic equalizer. But New York politicians have long shown that without the benefit of a primary, they serve a more insidious function — giving party leaders the chance to pick replacement candidates in a controlled setting.
    Joshua Spivak is a public relations executive and a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.