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The only election

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Members of the United States House of Representatives like to point to a distinction particular to their chamber: They are the only federal entity, and one of the few anywhere in government, whose members have gotten there exclusively by election. Not a single one, in all these more than 200 years, in any other way.

The vast majority of these representatives has been elected in regular even-year elections, but some got there in special elections when a member resigned or died. Several of these elections are planned around the country (one in Montana, for example) this year on occasion of the representative quitting to take a job in the Trump Administration, a common reason for a vacancy.

Idaho has never had a special election for a U.S. representative. (I refuse the word “congressman.” As a high school teacher of mine, a one-time Capitol Hill staffer, pointed out, there is no such job title.) No House member from Idaho ever has resigned during a term. Just one – ironically, a Democrat named Thomas Coffin, in 1934 – died in office; his seat remained unfilled until the next general election a few months later.

There is a procedure for a special House election in Idaho, however, and a bill aimed at adjusting it has drawn a rare veto from Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter. It also happened to be a bill opposed on the legislative floor only by Democrats, and this is not a coincidence.

The rule has been that special elections for House members were exempt from the general limitations on the number of elections during a year: A governor could call one by proclamation. The new bill would change that to limit the special election to one of the four standard election days during the year, and split it into two elections, a primary and a general. As it is now, the election is a “jungle” election, with the overall top vote-getter prevailing and winning the seat.

Neither approach is particularly sacred; various states handle it in each way. But there are implications, political and otherwise, to these decisions.

Otter (a former U.S. House member himself) said in his veto statement that “while I appreciate the desire to establish an orderly process for conducting a special election for filling a vacancy in one of Idaho’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, this legislation unnecessarily sacrifices timeliness for structure. … The governor now has discretion to set such elections, which should be conducted as soon as reasonably possible to ensure that Idaho’s congressional representation is not diminished for any longer than necessary. H197 could leave the state without a way of filling a U.S. House vacancy for six months or longer. That is simply unacceptable.” That’s a reasonable objection.

The current law also has another potential effect that some legislators may have considered, and not liked. Holding a primary election first, to settle on party nominees before sending them to the general election, is a way of resolving things within the party, of making the results somewhat more predictable. With Idaho’s current, single, winner-take-all election a “jungle” contest, things get unpredictable quickly. Imagine an election featuring five Republican candidates and one Democrat: even in Idaho, the Democrat would win. Or you might wind up with a Republican candidate who might not survive later for long. (Remember what happened the last time Idaho had a really big Republican primary for the U.S. House, in 2006, won by one-term Representative Bill Sali.)

Structure makes for political results, too.

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