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The Ins and Outs of New York State's Recent Special Election

When President Obama selected former New York Representative John McHugh to be the new Secretary of the Army on September 21st of this year, it created a unique situation for the state of New York. With the departure of McHugh, who received his Masters degree from our own Rockefeller College, to his new position in Washington, a special election became necessary to fill the vacancy created in the 23rd Congressional District of New York. Let's take a moment to examine the process that led up to this month's Special Election.

A Special Election is an election held to fill a political office that becomes vacant during the incumbent's term of office. The two most common causes of a vacancy in a political office are the death of the incumbent, or in the case of New York's 23rd Congressional District, the incumbent resigns for any number of reasons. Once John McHugh accepted the offer to become the Secretary of the Army, he had to resign his position as a member of the House of Representatives.

Following his acceptance of the position of Secretary of the Army, Governor David Patterson issued a proclamation declaring November 3rd to be the day that the Special Election take place to vote in John McHugh's replacement for the 23rd Congressional District. The Governor of New York has the sole authority to declare a Special Election. There is no timetable for the Governor to release an election proclamation declaring the seat vacant. Once the Governor declares the seat vacant, the Special Election must take place within forty days of the proclamation. New York law does not provide for a primary election when a special election is needed for a vacant House seat. In place of a primary election, nominees are chosen by the county leaders of each party within the district.

The Democratic Party nominated businessman and attorney Bill Owens, while the Conservative Party of New York nominated businessman and accountant Doug Hoffman (the Republicans nominated New York State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, who withdrew days before the election). According to the preliminary unofficial tally, Bill Owens emerged victorious, narrowly beating out his opponent, Doug Hoffman. This was a most unusual result because the area represented by the 23rd Congressional District has historically been one of the most Republican districts in the State.

With the unofficial tally showing a 5,000 vote lead for Owens, Hoffman had conceded the race, thereby allowing Owens to be sworn into Congress and vote for important legislation including the Health Care Reform Act. Now that the absentee votes are being counted, however, it looks like Owens has a chance at coming out as the victor in the race. The Health Care Reform Act passed the House by only 5 votes, including Owens’, making it strategically critical for Congress to swear Owens in before the count has been certified. If Owens is found to have lost the election, Owens could be asked to resign, but it will likely be a more drawn out process than that -- it would be almost a given that he would ask for a recount. But Owens' votes while currently in Congress will remain valid, because he has been officially sworn in for the time being.

UPDATE from Nov 25 New York Times --

Hoffman Stands Down: With Election Day three weeks in the rear view mirror — and with the final count of the ballots in — Douglas L. Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate in the special House election in upstate New York, released a statement on Tuesday to “re-affirm��? that Democrat Bill Owens had captured the seat.

Mr. Hoffman, if you remember, had conceded on Election Night to Mr. Owens, who was sworn in quickly enough to vote for the House health bill later that week. Mr. Hoffman later rued that concession once he found out that he had a slight chance of winning the race after provisional ballots were counted.

In the end, Mr. Owens won by roughly 3,500 votes — or around 2.3 percentage points. Mr. Hoffman has already announced plans to seek a rematch next year. (Check out the Watertown Daily Times for more on the race’s aftermath.)

If you are interested in researching the Special Election process or the Special Election that occurred in New York on November 3rd, please contact our Bibliographer for Political Science, Public Administration & Policy, and Law, Richard Irving. He can be reached through is email address, rirving@uamail.albany.edu, or by calling 442-3698.

Blog post created by Matthew Laudicina