The Pennsylvania special election is pure madness

Special elections are expensive and redundant. Enough already!

All the political world's eyes will turn this Tuesday to southwestern Pennsylvania and the special election between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone for a House seat vacated by a scandal-ridden GOP congressman. Since every seat matters and there are only a few contests happening at the moment, an absurd amount of money has poured into the district; as of last Monday, nearly $12 million had been spent on ads that are no doubt driving residents batty. Things have gotten so intense that as Lamb seemed to pull even in this district President Trump won by 20 points, Republicans started berating their own candidate to reporters in order to get a head start on the post-voting spin.

When the results are in, endless hot takes will be written about What It Means. If Lamb wins, it will show that Democrats are headed for a wave that will sweep the House into their control. If Saccone holds on, it will show that Republicans might have a chance to stave off disaster.

This is madness.

First of all, it's ridiculous that so much money and effort is being expended on a single House seat — and one for a district that, because of a redistricting ordered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, will cease to exist by the November election. While this won't be the most expensive House race in history — that title is held by the Georgia special election last year, in which $43 million was spent — the Pennsylvania race will probably come in second. And for what?

Allow me to suggest something radical: Let's get rid of special elections for House seats.

It isn't just that they're a waste of time and money. Turnout in special elections is usually extremely low, which isn't a surprise. It's hard enough to get to the polls on a Tuesday when a whole slate of offices are being decided; to get there just for one House election is, for most people, too much to ask. So most voters aren't even part of the process.

To be clear, I'm not saying we should get rid of all special elections — we can probably keep the ones for Senate. Since every state has only two senators, it's meaningful when your state is missing one. But if one of the U.S.'s 435 House seats is vacant for awhile, is there really some great harm?

The constituents, you might argue, won't be represented and won't have anyone to call if they have a problem with their Social Security. Fair enough, then: We could have a system that appoints a caretaker to fill the seat until the next election. Perhaps the state party of the person who left the seat would be allowed to fill it, or the House's sergeant at arms could appoint a non-partisan administrator who wouldn't vote on legislation but who could handle constituent complaints.

But what if a member of Congress keeled over and died the day after being sworn in? Then his constituents would be without an elected representative for two whole years! That brings me to a compromise position: Require that in the event of a vacancy, an election will be held the next November — Election Day — to fill it. If it's in the first year of the member's term, you get a special election, but it takes place on the same day as whatever other off-year seats are up, for mayor or county council or whatever else is happening where you live. If the seat becomes vacant in the second year, you'll just have to wait until Election Day in November.

That's the way Senate vacancies are filled in 36 states: The governor appoints someone to fill the seat, and then at the next regularly scheduled election, there's a vote. In the others, there's a special election, which can lead to shenanigans like the 2013 vote to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey, which Gov. Chris Christie (R) scheduled for just three weeks before the November election, probably in order to make sure his own re-election wouldn't be harmed by people coming out to vote in the special for Cory Booker.

Other than political consultants looking for business during the off-season, is there anyone who would really mind if we didn't have these special elections? Would anyone walk around all out of sorts because they didn't have someone in Washington, 435th in seniority in the lower house, serving their interests in the Capitol?

You could apply the same principle to state elections. Be honest now: Do you even know who your state representative is? If she left her job to become an Everest expedition guide, would you feel bereft between now and November?

In fact, only half the states use special elections to fill vacancies in the state legislature; the rest use some kind of system of appointments, either by parties, county commissions, or governors. And at times, this question can become partisan. Right now, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is refusing to hold special elections for two vacant seats in the state legislature, and everyone knows it's because he's worried they might turn from Republican to Democrat.

But even if you think Walker is wrong in that case because he had scheduled other special elections when he was sure his party would hold on to the seat, you can still agree that as a general principle, holding a special election that most people won't vote in but that the parties will spend a huge amount of money on seems like a less than optimal use of our attention and resources.

The Constitution requires that states hold elections to fill vacancies in the House, but it doesn't say how or when, which means states could use pretty much any system they want — even a sane one — to handle this problem. Of course, we all know that both parties will want to look for short-term partisan advantage. But it's hard to argue that special elections like the one going on in Pennsylvania are really good for the voters.

So why not just get rid of them?


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