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What Is a Special Election?

When an elected position becomes vacant between regular election cycles, a special election is held.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 08 April 2014
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A special election is an election which is held to fill a seat which has become vacant between regular elections. This type of election may also be known as a by-election or bye-election, depending on the nation in which it is being held. Such elections can be costly to administer and they are usually not politically important, with a relatively low voter turnout being typical at special elections. However, sometimes a special election will provide a political opportunity and an upset can occur to change the balance of the political system.

There are a number of reasons why a special election might need to be held. An incumbent may die in office, for example, leaving a seat empty. An office holder may also resign, be forced out of office, or be recalled or impeached. It is also possible for someone in office to be appointed to a position with the government, in which case it is conventional to resign in many nations. For example, if the President of the United States names a United States Senator to a cabinet position, that Senator will need to leave the Senate to take the position.

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Commonly, the result of a special election is that the party which held the seat before puts forward another candidate and this candidate wins the election, often by a large margin. However, sometimes rival parties take advantage of a special election to introduce a new candidate or to attempt to regain a seat. Sometimes a race for a seat can become hotly contested, especially if political discord and upset are already present. People may see a special election as an opportunity to comment with their votes on the activities of various political parties in these situations.

In advance of a special election, voters usually receive a voter information guide and a sample ballot so that they can prepare for the election. Regional newspapers often endorse candidates, and there may be opportunities to attend debates and other events such as town hall meetings which allow people to meet the candidates and learn more about their political positions. On election day, balloting may be done in polling places or via absentee ballot, depending on the region. Some communities attempt to save money on special elections by holding absentee balloting.

Special elections are sometimes treated as unimportant because the person who wins the seat will not serve a full term. However, once someone manages to gain a seat in an election, she or he can be difficult to dislodge, and may easily be reelected for an additional term. It is wise to pay attention to special elections and to vote even if it does not seem important.

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Discuss this Article

mrwormy
Post 2

My wife and I both serve as poll workers, and I've seen my share of special elections. Most of them are poorly attended, but occasionally there will be a controversial local issue that brings more people out to the polls. One year our city held a special election to replace a popular sheriff, and the voters weren't happy with the man the county wanted in that position. They mostly came out to vote "no", even though he was the only viable name on the special election ballot.

Considering how expensive it can be to hold a special election, I'd think the people in charge would hold off until the regular general elections in November. Apparently that's not the way the election laws read, however. Some temporary positions can't be appointed. Voters must be given the opportunity to voice their opinions with a vote.

RocketLanch8
Post 1

I remember we had a special election in our area a few years ago, but it wasn't to replace an elected official. According to state law, any changes to the state constitution's language had to be approved by voters. This meant the local election boards had to get out all of their voting equipment, set up the polling places and get the word out to voters in order to vote on one minor issue. I forget how many thousands of dollars the state and cities ended up paying for this special election, but the state leaders voted to eliminate that state law the very next year.

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