Choosing Murtha’s successor

FEBRUARY 18, 2010
Holding a special election on primary day will be good for Democrats and voters
    The death of Rep. John Murtha means Pennsylvania will get a turn at the latest nationwide craze: special elections. Given that Murtha represented a swing district that voted for John McCain for president in 2008, the race will be used to take the nation’s political temperature.
    Following the shocking result in Massachusetts, and with Democrats on their heels in the polls, Republicans have reason to be confident. But one critical question concerned when the election would be held, and the answer is likely to benefit the Democrats.
    Gov. Rendell announced yesterday that he will call the special election on primary day, May 18. For the governor, that is good policy and good politics.
    The policy advantages are obvious: There is no reason to take on the expense of a special election when a primary is approaching. Furthermore, a primary will draw more voters, which should always be the goal in an election.
    For Democrats, the date is also good politics, because holding the special election on a regular election day will improve the party’s odds of holding the seat.
    Historically, turnout for special elections is lower - often dramatically lower - than for general elections. Voters have to both know about the special election and care enough to show up for just one race.
    A vote held on a regular election day doesn’t have the same problem. The voters are informed of the date well in advance, and they may also be casting ballots on the presidency, a governorship, a mayoralty, or something else.
    New York recently saw two competitive, closely followed special elections. In the first, to fill newly appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s House seat, turnout was less than half that of the November 2008 election. In the second, which featured a high-profile conservative challenge to the moderate Republican candidate, turnout was 38 percent less than in the general election.
    Even the recent Massachusetts election saw a turnout that was 27 percent lower than for John Kerry’s relatively uncontested reelection in 2008, though it was slightly higher than for Edward Kennedy’s 2006 reelection.
    Who shows up for special elections? The most motivated voters, and frequently those on the extreme ends of both sides of the political spectrum. This year, it’s apparent that conservatives are the most motivated voters.
    But holding the vote on primary day could counter that Republican advantage. In 2008, there were two recall elections against state legislators, one in California and one in Michigan. Recalls are often successful because they are special elections, which gives an advantage to recall proponents, who are the most motivated voters. However, both 2008 recalls were scheduled on primary days, and both elected officials survived by a wide margin.
    In Pennsylvania, Democrats are already facing a hotly contested Senate primary featuring Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak. That could further boost voter turnout and the prospects for Democrats, as could the race for their gubernatorial nomination.
    Special elections are tricky. Since it’s hard to guess who might come out to vote, even the smallest change could benefit one side or the other. But in filling the Murtha seat, Rendell is in the enviable position of having made a good policy decision that also helps his party politically.
    Joshua Spivak is a public relations executive, attorney, and senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.