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Binary Man: Dump All Special Elections?

Binary Man has come to our planet to settle disputes, solve problems and make life better. Each week, he will confront an issue, weigh the arguments and present a verdict. Got an issue for him? Post it below or e-mail him.

In Fairfax County Tuesday, a whopping 100,000 or so voters out of a population of one million people took time out to vote in a special election to determine the top official in the largest jurisdiction in Virginia or the Washington area. That's a shoddy showing by any measure.

This off-cycle election was held because Gerry Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax board of supervisors since 2003, was elected to Congress in November, and someone has to fill his vacant seat. Binary Man's question today--spurred by pathetically low turnouts in special elections held because politicians ran for or won higher office and therefore abandoned the jobs to which they'd first been elected--is whether it's more fair and productive to hold special elections or allow a high-ranking elected official to appoint a temporary replacement for the departing officeholder.

In general, Binary Man favors democracy. Voting is good. Backroom maneuvering by politicians is not as good. Leaving decisions about who holds high public office to other elected officials is not healthy for anyone, even for those elected officials. Ask Rod Blagojevich, or New York governor David Paterson.

But even if we agree that elections beat cronyism any day, it's also true that elections are truly democratic events only if people actually participate in them, and in the case of the bonus votes known as special elections, that's open to question.

As a rule, special elections are a crapshoot. Compared to the turnout in regularly scheduled elections, hardly anybody bothers to vote. In Alexandria last month, in a special election held to replace Brian Moran, the state delegate who quit the legislature to run for governor in this June's Democratic primary, a sad total of 2,686 people bothered to vote. That's a turnout of 5.8 percent, compared to the also-not-impressive 12.6 percent who voted in Moran's last regular election, in 2007 (but note that Moran ran unopposed that year, depressing turnout substantially.)

The result last month pushed the state's two parties into a frenzy of rethinking about their strategies and chances in northern Virginia. The Democrat in that hugely Democratic district won by a hair--by 16 votes. As a result, Charniele Herring had to wait for an official recount before she could take her seat, and Virginia's Democratic and Republican hierarchies hustled to invest far more energy and money in this week's Fairfax special election than they would have had the Alexandria vote not been so odd.

In Fairfax, Tuesday's turnout was just more than half that of the last time Connolly ran for chairman in a regular election, in 2007, when 191,000 voters cast ballots.

Does it make sense to leave these decisions to the relative few who vote in special elections? The elitist in Binary Man likes the idea that these elections draw the people who are most politically aware and active, and who therefore might be expected to make smarter decisions about who should be in office. But Binary Man's populist side dismisses that thinking as so much rubbish, noting that the wisdom of the crowd is the basis for our system, and noting further that history's judgment on our best presidents aligns pretty nicely with the margins of victory and the considerable popularity of those particular men. (There are exceptions, of course, but nobody, not even the American electorate, is perfect. Richard Nixon won twice.)

More to the point, does it make sense to ask voters to haul themselves out to the polls just because some politician is smitten with Potomac fever and feels drawn to quit his job in local government so he can campaign full-time for Congress?

The concept--and the cost--of special elections offended Don Praisner, the Montgomery County Council member who died last week. Just before he died, Praisner--who himself was elected in a special election held after the death of his wife, Marilyn, last year--sent his colleagues a letter urging them not to waste the taxpayers' dollars by holding a special election to find his replacement:

"The cost of such an election could exceed $1.3 million at a time when our residents are struggling and County government is being forced to cut back on essential programs.

We also know from recent experience that few eligible voters cast ballots in these special elections. Turnout in the District 4 special election equaled less than six percent of the turnout in the recent presidential primary. In fairness to the voters of District 4 and the residents of the entire County, it would be better to appoint an individual who would serve out my term and who would agree not to run in the 2010 election. Such an arrangement would give potential candidates adequate time to share their vision for the county with the voters of District 4."

Alas, Praisner's last-ditch attempt to save his constituents a boatload of money was destined to fail. Council president Phil Andrews announced this week that a special election is mandated by county law and must be held. It will likely take place in May.

Binary Man, who yearns for a day when flexibility will once again hold an honored place in the human toolbox, shed a tear over that one.

It's not even close to a perfect solution to have governors appoint officials who are supposed to be elected. (In Virginia, there's a nice twist on that procedure; when a state official quits office while the legislature is in session, it's the legislators, not the governor, who pick the successor. That's what will happen now in the selection of a new Attorney General, as current AG Bob McDonnell, the Republican who is also running for governor this year, announced Tuesday that he's quitting to campaign full time.)

But the folks who do the appointing do have to pay some attention to the wishes of the voters, or at least they have to make choices that will pass the laugh and smell tests. (Again, ask ex-Gov. Blagojevich about that one.)

In his farewell note to his colleagues, Praisner wrote, "I want to leave you with this one thought: Norman Vincent Peale once said, 'No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities--always see them, for they're always there.'"

Binary Man sees possibility in those who would have the courage to step back from the reflexive belief that more democracy is always better. Voting is a precious and essential right, but a system that taxes the patience and interest level of its citizens toys dangerously with the power of the vote. Picking politicians who will fill important positions on the basis of elections held at odd times of year, with minimal publicity and brief, unnoticed campaigns, cannot possibly breed confidence and trust in the system. Let the elected officials pick temporary successors to those who resign early. If the appointments turn out to be busts, the voters will make that clear in the next regularly scheduled election.

This time, under these special circumstances, Binary Man votes for no vote.

What's your view?

By Marc Fisher |  February 3, 2009; 9:03 PM ET
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Here's an interesting addendum: look at the chain that will happen in Fairfax County. One of the supervisor districts will need to have a special election to fill the position that the new chair currently holds. Local pundits believe that members of the school board will vie for this position, no matter if it's Springfield or Braddock. Now we'll need another special election, either in a district or countywide if an at-large member wins. Yipes!

In spite of this, special elections must be the way to go. Having an outgoing officeholder pick a successor smacks of favoritism and will saddle the successor with a label that will be undesired (and potentially detrimental if the person could have been elected without it).

Posted by: jkuchen | February 3, 2009 9:30 PM

"...Gerry Connolly, the longtime chairman of the Fairfax board of supervisors..."

By, longtime, Marc, you mean less than five years? Connolly was elected Chairman in November 2003 and took that office in January 2004. When he resigned to take his seat in Congress he had been Chairman less than five years.

And, why do you belittle the turn-out Tuesday as less than half of the turn-out in Fairfax County in the 2007 state general election? In Nov 2007, the entire state legislature, the entire county board of supervisors, and numerous other local school board, commissioner, etc, offices were on the ballot, along with two major bond initiatives. Tuesday, the sole ballot selection was Chairman. The real story is that only 190,000 people voted in Nov 2007 out of over 600,000 registered voters. 15% turn-out in a special election is sad, but it is no where near the scandal of a 32% turn-out in a state-wide general election!

Finally, I will take a special election any day over letting an office vacancy be filled by a political appointment, even if only 1,000 people show up to vote. Exhibit A: Senator Roland Burris.

Posted by: hisroc | February 3, 2009 9:37 PM

Why not enact a law that says any politician leaving an elected position early to take a different elected position must pay for the cost of the special election to replace him or her?

Posted by: xxblahblahblahblahxx | February 3, 2009 9:45 PM

I agree public elections are not ideal, to say the least, but they are a million times better than an appointment system. That is just an open door for corruption, ruined careers, you name it. Too much power in the hands of the appointer. Democracy is a terrible system, as they say, except for the alternatives. In this case, a special election represents democracy.

As a practical matter, I wonder if it would have been better to have the law allow for a longer delay, though -- a campaign largely fought during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the extreme local excitement over the inauguration was really fighting an uphill battle for public attention! "Uphill" in the sense of a straight-up cliff!

The much earlier Alexandria election, which seemed to fall practically on inauguration day, was in an even worse scheduling situation. Maybe both would have worked out better in, say, March or April.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | February 3, 2009 10:19 PM

How about this. If a politician leaves office for a better job, then the opponent that lost to them, if they still want the seat, has first dibs at it. Whoever lost to Obama and Clinton for the senate gets asked first. If nothing else it might encourage politicians to finish what they started.

Posted by: crete | February 3, 2009 11:34 PM

I went to vote and I was the only person at the polling place (aside from the pollworkers, of course).

Earlier in the morning I had driven past a Denny's, where they had a free breakfast promo. The cars were overflowing the available parking and it turned out there was a 45-minute wait even for a party of one.

Guess we know what Fairfax County citizens consider important.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 4, 2009 12:46 AM

Our polling place of Vale, was a little better, in that there were people voting when we arrived and a couple were voting when we left, and let's face it, 16% turnout is pretty good for a special election.

Also, must say I am pleased for Sharon Bulova; 16-17 years service as Supervisor gives her ample experience as compared to someone who has served one year of a four year term.

Special elections work for me, Binary Man.

Always enjoy your column, Marc.

Posted by: VintageLady | February 4, 2009 5:16 AM

Now this is nice - and worth reading again:

'No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities--always see them, for they're always there.'"

Posted by: gary4books | February 4, 2009 5:22 AM

The issue boils down to this: Does one person decided who will hold the office or do 100,000? If the cost in Montgomery and Fairfax are comparable, the cost is about $1.30 per person in the county. Not a tremendous amount to give for the right to say who governs.

Posted by: cmckeonjr | February 4, 2009 7:49 AM

Can we have these votes on a Saturday? Even though we live in fairfax county, we spend well around 3 hours for commute, and it is fairly difficult to vote early or late, given office does not like tweaking time for a silly local by-election.

Posted by: ssensharma | February 4, 2009 9:38 PM

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