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Almost one-third of lawmakers have won their post in special elections

Good government groups say new process for specials would improve democracy

By Andrew Carden
Staff writer

In the race to replace former Assemblyman Mark Schroeder, D-South Buffalo, Michael Kearns, a registered Democrat running on the Republican line, defeated Democratic opponent Chris Fahey by a 17 percent margin. Kearns was among five winners in last week’s special elections. Two of those races remain too-close-to-call, according to the Associated Press. Photo by courtesy of Michael Kearns.
March 26, 2012
With last week's special elections for legislative seats increasing the number of sitting state legislators first elected in a special election to 30 percent, a good-government group is urging the Legislature to consider two bills aimed at reforming the special election process.

Citizens Union of the City of New York has put the spotlight on bills A.1368/S.26, sponsored by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, D-Brooklyn, and Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-Carroll Gardens, respectively, and A.1770, sponsored by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, both of which are designed to reform the process for special elections.

The first bill, sponsored by Jeffries and Squadron, would establish a nonpartisan special election process, allowing all candidates to independently petition to be on the ballot. Under the state's process now, political parties engage in a closed-door process to select their nominees, bypassing traditional primaries.

Jeffries said the current special election process is "flawed and often undemocratic."

"Our legislation will bring increased fairness to the current political process and put electoral decisions directly in the hands of the public where they belong," said Jeffries.

The second bill, sponsored by Rosenthal, would implement primaries to coincide with the special elections, thus eliminating the closed-door nomination process. Under her legislation, independent candidates would be allowed to petition their way on to the general election ballot.

"Democracy works best when people get to choose their representatives in direct elections," said Rosenthal. "The current system prevents all but the most connected and wealthiest players from having an impact and limits voter participation in a given district."

Citizens Union says they support the passage of either bill.

"This finding that nearly a third of all sitting legislators were first elected to their positions by closed party insider dealing is not a judgment on the individual legislators themselves, but rather a sad indictment on our local democracy that forbids voters from choosing their party nominees," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union.

Rachael Fauss, policy and research manager at Citizens Union, said the state needs to create a "fairer" election system for when future vacancies occur.

"New Yorkers deserve a better and more democratic process that gives voters greater choice in nominating the candidates who will represent them," said Fauss.

A June 2011 report conducted by Citizens Union found 26 percent of sitting legislators at that time had been first elected in a special election. Since that report, 12 legislative seats have been filled in special elections. As of March 2012, 35 percent of sitting Assembly members were first elected in a special election, with 16 percent of Senate members in the same category.

Citizens Union has also tracked the latest reasons why legislators have left office, sparking these special elections. Of the sitting legislators who were first elected in a special election, 67 percent of their predecessors left for another office, 14 percent of their predecessors retired, 11 percent of their predecessors died in office and 8 percent of their predecessors resigned in the face of corruption charges.

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