When Paula Julander retired Scott McCoy was appointed to fill that seat in 2005. After McCoy resigned, McAdams won the appointment in 2009. They only had to win a majority of Democratic delegates. In McCoy’s case, he won the final ballot 44-41.
Now, there are a number of reasons why Utah has the system it does to replace vacancies in the Legislature. Political expediency is one. Cost is another. It would be time consuming and expensive (for both candidates and election officials) to have a special election to fill the seat.
There are approximately 160 delegates who will make the final decision on McAdams’ replacement. 160 people, all Democrats, deciding for the approximately 95,000 people who live in that district.
Here’s why next Saturday’s election is so important. Whoever wins will get to call themselves the incumbent when they stand for election in 2014. And that word, incumbent, brings tremendous advantages for whomever wraps themselves in it.
Incumbents usually have access to money that challengers don’t. Most incumbents are able to raise far more money than their challengers. It’s easier to pull in campaign contributions from lobbyists and groups when you have a prior relationship forged from being a legislator.
Incumbents are also more likely to win in a general election as well. The only incumbents who lost this year were Democrat Christine Watkins and Republican Fred Cox, although he was pitted against another incumbent following redistricting.
Winning incumbency through appointment to the Legislature is more common than you might think. An analysis of the 2012 Legislative roster finds that 28% of members in both the House and Senate first won their seats through appointment after a vacancy. That’s a stunning number when you think about it. It’s even more stark when you consider that a few of these appointees have risen to leadership positions within their caucuses...all without facing a full electorate the first time around.
I had one Republican lawmaker who has been on both sides of the equation - as a challenger and an incumbent - tell me it’s much easier to run for a seat that you already occupy.
I understand why Utah’s system is the way it is. It’s orderly. It’s simple. It’s efficient. But is it fair?
It insulates the candidates running for that office from truly knowing the needs and concerns of the voters in that district.
Yes, they all live in the district. But most of them haven’t been campaigning, haven’t been door to door and talking with their neighbors. None of them will have an open town hall meeting. There will be one debate among the candidates, but that hardly seems like an effective vetting before they join one of the most exclusive clubs in the state.
160 delegates deciding for 95,000 people means less than 2/10 of one percent of the population in Senate District 2 will decide the course for the next two years and possibly beyond that.
You can make a compelling argument that the delegates who will make the decision are the most politically active in the district. Most of them will talk with their neighbors about how they will vote next Saturday. That might make them the best person to decide on who should fill that seat.
But, consider this. Do you think the Republicans who live in that district would be happy with Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis filling that seat? How about former Salt Lake County Democratic Chairman Weston Clark (who has since withdrawn from the race)? I’m not picking on Dabakis and Clark, just making a point.
Why should the party that currently occupies a seat retain that seat when a politician resigns? Shouldn’t elections be about the candidate instead of the party? Having only Democrats as candidates in Senate District 2 effectively disenfranchises any and all Republicans in that district. The same would go for Democrats living in a Republican held district.
Why not open up Legislative vacancies to a special election 30 days after a vacancy is announced? If someone gets 50%, they win. If there are more than two candidates and nobody wins a majority, the top-two vote getters move to a run-off two weeks later.
It would introduce an element of unpredictability and chaos into an otherwise boring political process. A one-month mad dash for votes would be about as entertaining a scenario as a political junkie could ask for.
It would be one of the few times that legislative candidates would be on an even playing field. Money wouldn’t be much of a factor as candidates would have to focus on voter outreach and campaigning. Retail politics taken to the extreme.
Alas, it probably won’t happen. There is no incentive for the political parties to change state code. Why would they give up the current system that guarantees them control of a seat in case of a vacancy?
A guarantee in politics is a precious thing.
Yes, the current process is bad. The only thing worse would be everything else.
“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” ~ Oscar Wilde