More economical solution to costly special election

By Erik Connell
Published February 25th 2009 in Gazette

The issue of legislative vacancies has been on a lot of people's minds lately. The media spectacle of disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich trying to sell President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat has put the issue at the forefront of national attention.

U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) are teaming up again to propose a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, aimed at mandating special elections for Senate vacancies, just as is now required for all U.S. House of Representatives vacancies.

Meanwhile, newspaper editorial boards and grassroots groups across the country are jumping on the bandwagon to endorse the sensible prospect of allowing the people to choose their representatives.

The Blagojevich example illustrates the need to hold elections for vacant seats, as opposed to leaving the decision up to an individual, or even a group of legislators. As we saw, the process is easily corruptible. Those with the power to appoint are able to "sell" seats, or try to gain political influence or allies through the appointment process. In addition to this, it goes against our basic democratic value that we should elect the people who represent us.

While the new McCain-Feingold amendment certainly deserves to pass, it would not fix all of the problems associated with filling vacant seats, as we will see below.

Here in Montgomery County, we're facing our own questions about representation. The death of County Councilman Don Praisner will bring about the second special election in the county since last May, when Mr. Praisner himself replaced his late wife Marilyn. Mr. Praisner won his seat after winning both the District 4 special Democratic primary and the special general election last April and May.

The cost of administering these two elections combined for more than $1.3 million. In other words, the county spent $1.3 million to elect a single person — and will be doing so again soon.

Also, turnout dropped from the already low 11.5 percent in the primary to 8.5 percent in the general, as voters knew the winner of the Democratic primary was certain to win the heavily Democratic district. Expect the same turnout drop-off to replicate itself in the impending District 4 special general election.

These issues triggered Mr. Praisner to suggest appointing a successor rather than electing one. At first glance, it would seem like there are two competing interests here: whether to save money on special elections in these tough economic times by simply appointing officials or whether to prevent corruption and partisan gaming by electing officials.

While Mr. Praisner was right to complain about low participation at high expense for special elections, as we saw above, appointments aren't exactly a panacea.

The compromise solution to both of these problems is clear: have a single election for vacancies using instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV is a voting system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. Candidates are then eliminated and their votes redistributed until one candidate has a majority of the vote.

IRV would solve both problems, as an election would be held, but there would be no need for a primary. The cost of running vacancy elections would be cut in half, as there would be only one election. The drop-off in turnout from primary to general would also be averted this way, and this would all be done without worry that the potentially crowded field in a special election could result in a spoiler problem or election of a candidate that most voters disapproved of.

This reform is not merely a theory, it is used in many jurisdictions around the nation. Dozens of cities have adopted IRV for their elections, including Takoma Park. The idea has even attracted the interest of both President Obama, who sponsored IRV legislation when serving in the Illinois legislature, and Senator McCain, who backed it for statewide use in Alaska.

Both the Blagojevich scandal and the current economic crisis have saddened many Americans. But if there's a silver lining, perhaps it could be that, due to these unfortunate circumstances, Americans rethink the way we do democracy, and move toward common-sense reforms like instant runoff voting for vacancy elections.

Erik Connell is an analyst for FairVote, an election reform advocacy group based in Takoma Park.