No matter who wins the May 5 special elections to fill a vacant Republican-leaning congressional seat and a vacant Democratic-leaning Assembly seat, we already know who the losers will be: The hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who will choose from a severely limited choice of candidates selected in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms.
Reform of our badly outdated election rules would benefit everyone: The public deserves an open process to select the best candidates, and the city's struggling party organizations could gain new energy, new candidates and a measure of respect by making special elections less of a back-room affair.
Vacancies happen in New York all the time. Elected officials resign after getting elected or appointed to a higher office, or due to illness, death or criminal conviction. The latest pair of openings happened because Assemblyman Karim Camara of Brooklyn, a minister, got named to a newly created Office of Faith-Based Initiatives in the Cuomo administration and because Michael Grimm, a convicted felon, quit his Staten Island congressional seat in advance of his upcoming sentence for tax fraud.
Ideally, both seats would have remained vacant for a few months, after which voters could go to the polls in party primaries and select new candidates. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, thanks to a collision of different laws regarding special elections.
Under state law, the governor has wide latitude about when to announce special elections, or can choose to simply wait until the regular September primary rolls around, which is what Cuomo did last year when a dozen vacancies cropped up (including seven in New York City).
He has far less control over congressional vacancies; Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires "the Executive Authority" of each state (i.e., the governor) to announce a new election when a congressional seat is vacant. A group of Staten Island Republicans, not content to wait until September, sued the governor in federal court, leading to a strongly worded ruling that all but ordered Cuomo to set a date as soon as possible.
The problem with rushing ahead with special elections is that New York's election laws and party rules effectively cut voters out of the equation. Turnout will be drastically lower than usual on May 5 because there won't be any other races on the ballot (compared with September primaries that, even in a quiet year like 2015, include a few Civil Court contests).
Even worse, the current law allows party insiders to select who will appear on the Republican or Democratic lines, which truncates the number of candidates from which voters can choose.
On Staten Island, Republican leaders immediately tapped Daniel Donovan as the party's choice for Congress, snubbing Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a rising star whose history-making career as the first Latina ever elected on Staten Island, with Greek- and Cuban-born immigrant parents, could have helped the GOP make inroads in fast-growing communities nationwide.
Voters might have been ready to take a step in a new and potentially exciting direction, had they been allowed the chance to cast votes in a primary. An even worse situation has emerged in Brooklyn, where Camara's resignation has left a level of confusion that even longtime political operatives are struggling to straighten out.
According to the bylaws of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, the party's choice will be made by a little-known committee of party members who live within the Assembly district. The committee, which in theory could have hundreds of members, currently has only 10 — all placed there by Guillermo Philpotts, a gadfly candidate who runs for office every few years, mounting failed bids for state Senate in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2014. (In some of his bids, Philpotts was bounced off the ballot; in others, he never showed up at candidate debates.)
Sources tell me that Philpotts plans to hurriedly add new members to his handpicked committee, then deliver the Democratic nomination to Shirley Patterson, the area's female district leader.
Insiders say the deal has been blessed by state Sen. Jesse Hamilton (D-Brooklyn) and Borough President Eric Adams.
Here again, voters might well have gone in a different direction.
Democratic District leader Geoffrey Davis, longtime consultant Musa Moore and nonprofit manager Diana Richardson have all been gearing up for a primary election that will never happen.
It's long past time for New York to pass a law mandating that vacancies be filled by a primary election scheduled for the September after the vacancy occurs. That way, we can add the vital ingredient currently missing from special elections: voter choice.
Louis is political anchor at NY1 News.