When East Boston voters pick a replacement for state Senator Anthony Petruccelli in a special election later this year, it’ll continue a tradition that Boston shouldn’t be proud of. More than half of Boston’s state legislators – 14 out of the 23 – originally won their offices through special elections, which generally have abysmal turnout and are highly vulnerable to special-interest manipulation.
If nothing else, special elections add needless cost and complexity to the political system. But they’re also a means for shepherding political insiders into positions of incumbency, which gives them a huge advantage at regular elections. About a quarter of all Beacon Hill lawmakers – including Petruccelli himself, who won special elections to the House in 1999 and Senate in 2007 – were originally chosen in special elections, which generally also have shorter campaigns.
Special elections need to be rare, and when they happen, scheduled on days that will maximize turnout and provide a long enough window for a broad range of candidates to emerge. One of the underappreciated features of regular November elections is that everyone — voters and potential candidates — knows when they are, and that a political newcomer considering a run for office has the time to raise money, build name recognition, and organize a campaign.
Scheduling special elections also needs to be taken out of the hands of legislative leaders, to avoid the appearance of favor-trading. When the Senate president or House speaker sets an election date that works to the advantage of one candidate — who in turn will cast votes for Senate president or House speaker — the potential for conflict should be obvious.
Another recent vacancy exemplifies how the current process can be gamed. On Nov. 3, state Senator Robert Hedlund was elected mayor of Weymouth but, like Petruccelli, didn’t formally resign his seat. To fill the seats to be vacated by Hedlund and Petruccelli, Secretary of State William Galvin, who is in charge of overseeing and managing elections but does not choose the date, approached the Senate leadership and the two senators to suggest a March 1 special election, the same date as the presidential primaries. That would have required the two senators to resign, or send a letter to Galvin outlining their intention to step down.
Neither did that in time for a March 1 vote. Explaining his reluctance, Hedlund told the Globe that he is only following “precedent” in how previous Senate vacancies have been filled. Hedlund, a Republican, opposed Super Tuesday as the special election date for his long-held seat because he believes that holding a special election on that date will favor whoever the Democratic candidate running for the seat is, and that he only wants an even playing field for the candidates.
But holding the election in the spring or summer doesn’t guarantee an even playing field either — and, in any case, the needs of Weymouth Republicans shouldn’t factor into election dates. Meanwhile, the timing of Petruccelli’s resignation announcement — he also hasn’t officially resigned yet — suggests he is also rigging the system to make sure the primary and election for his seat is held on a low-turnout day. Now Galvin has to schedule two separate special elections, along with Democratic and Republican primaries for each, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $200,000.
Defenders of special elections sometimes say they’re a way to get more people of color elected, but the opposite seems to happen more often. Because they’re low voter-participation events, they tend to exacerbate the underrepresentation of minorities in political office. And a couple of victories hardly disprove the tendency that special elections favor insiders of all colors.
To be clear, Massachusetts shouldn’t ditch special elections as a method to fill vacancies in the General Court. But the rules around the timing of resignations must be improved to avoid the political maneuvering that has become a regular practice. Lawmakers should consider making the necessary changes to put scheduling special elections in the hands of the secretary of state and lengthening the period of time between resignations and elections. It will save taxpayers money, and lead to fairer government representation and a stronger democracy.