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Special Election

What's So Special About Special Elections?

3 min read
Special Election
Good Party Politics Team · Mar 15, 2024

Special elections, also called by-elections, play a crucial role in the democratic process in the United States. Elections are typically conducted in regular cycles, and special elections disrupt that usual rhythm.

When an outgoing, term-limited politician steps down, a general election chooses the next person to hold that office. Every four years, there are both presidential and congressional elections on regular cycles. The electoral process typically organizes elections according to a ladder schedule, with presidential elections occurring first and congressional elections following two years later. But occasionally, such as when a position becomes unexpectedly empty, it becomes necessary to have by-elections outside of the regular, known cycle.

General vs. Special Elections

A special election refers to any electoral procedure that occurs outside of the regular calendar of elections for political office. The most common reason for holding a special election is an unexpected vacancy caused by the resignation, illness, or death of the current officeholder. 

When this happens, the state’s governor first appoints a temporary placeholder to fill the seat, who may then run as an incumbent in the special election. In many cases, that placeholder candidate will win the off-season election as the incumbent, though not always. Some seats have even been known to flip parties as a result of the special election process.

Special elections can be significant when it comes to voter turnout. Political candidates tend to study the general election cycle the most to customize their campaign messages and appeal to the largest number of voters. However, political candidates are usually less prepared for special elections. After all, special elections frequently occur without notice or due to an unexpected event causing a vacancy. 

Special elections often have lower voter turnout than general elections. Voter engagement in special elections varies greatly depending on the circumstances of the election. However, their impact should not be discounted. Politicians elected to office during special elections can go on to have a significant impact on U.S. policy and politics.

Here are some examples of the distinctive circumstances that might warrant a special election:

  • A vacancy in a Congressional seat

  • A vacancy in any council or board, such as a city council or school board

  • A vacancy in a judicial seat

  • A vacancy in a state office, such as governor

  •  Vacancies in county offices

If the vacancy occurs relatively close to a regular general election, a special election might not be needed. However, if the vacancy occurs further away from a general election, a by-election might be called for.


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Examples of Special Elections

Here are some recent examples of by-elections held in the United States:

  • In California, the death of longtime Senator Dianne Feinstein on September 29, 2023, resulted in the governor’s temporary appointment of Laphonza Butler on October 2, 2023. On November 5, 2024, a special election will be held to determine the permanent holder of this seat.

  • On February 13, 2024, New York held a special election to fill a vacant seat in the state’s 3rd congressional district, after the expulsion of Republican Representative George Santos. The election was won by a Democratic candidate, Tom Suozzi.

  • In Pennsylvania, voters elected a Democratic candidate, Jim Prokopiak, in a special election for the Bucks County seat of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The election took place after the former officeholder, John Galloway, resigned to serve as a magisterial judge.

The Impact of Special Elections

By-elections are a crucial component of the democratic process. Without them, leaders holding highly significant political seats would be chosen purely by appointment in the case of a vacancy. This system could open the door for nepotism and favoritism. Instead, special elections give voters the opportunity to voice their opinions and make their preferences known when a seat becomes vacant.

Special elections are also significant because of their ability to turn the political tide in the middle of a legislative session or standard term of office. Especially in closely contested races, special elections can flip control of a governing body from one party to another. They can also provide an opportunity for independent and third-party candidates to make an impact on local and state politics.

The Power of Civic Involvement

Is a special election on the horizon in your community? When a special election is announced, it’s a great opportunity for civic engagement. 

Be sure to access your local or state government’s website for detailed information about how to participate in upcoming elections. Voting in special elections is an important way to carry out your civic duty.

If you want to make an even bigger impact, you might consider running for office to fill the vacant seat that’s up for election. Running for office during a special election can be a lower commitment than running for office during a regularly scheduled election, because your term length will likely be shorter. You’ll simply be campaigning to pick up where the previous office holder left off and complete their unfinished term.

Want to learn more about how you can get started running for office? Book a free consultation with Good Party’s team of campaign experts, and start planning for how you can stand up and make a difference in your community.  


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Civic Engagement
Voter Education
Politics 101
Special Election
By Good Party Politics Team
The politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.