Backroom Party Politics Shut Women Out of Candidate Selection, Lead to Less Gender Diversity in Albany

New York, NY – Bill Samuels, founder of the reform group New Roosevelt, joined State Senator Liz Krueger, Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause, and Elizabeth Caputo, Chairperson of DL21C to blast the continued over-use of special elections, exposing the fact that the boss-driven selection process has had a demonstrably negative impact on the percentage of women representative in Albany.

Good government groups have long panned special elections because of the back-room manner in which candidates are chosen, lower voter turnout and higher cost to localities. But New Roosevelt’s review of recent special elections in New York also show the toll they take on diverse representation, with a disturbing slant against women as potential candidates and a preference for party loyal men.

“The process for filling legislative vacancies in New York is completely broken, and it is quietly but clearly expanding the dominance of men in our dysfunctional state legislature,” said Bill Samuels, founder of New Roosevelt. “Backroom deals and party bosses alone pick the candidates, translating to an old-boys network that promotes party-loyal men over more qualified women.”

Using data from Circumventing Democracy, Citizen Union’s groundbreaking report on the overuse of special elections, New Roosevelt found that overwhelmingly, men are chosen by party bosses to fill legislative vacancies – even when the incumbent being replaced is a woman. In the 60 special elections that have elected current members of the legislature, 45 were in seats previously held by men and 15 were in seats previously held by women.

Of those previously held by men, a man filled the vacancy a shocking 87% of the time, whereas a woman filled the vacancy only 13% of the time. Yet when the seat being vacated had previously been held by a woman, 67% of the new representatives were men, leaving only 33% of the seats continuing to be represented by women legislators. This new party-driven glass ceiling is eroding the number of women in office even as the public shows increasing preference for female candidates.

“It has always disturbed me that special elections have somehow been deemed exempt from the normal democratic process,” stated State Senator Liz Krueger. “By allowing party leaders, instead of a body of voters, to chose the candidate we’re removing competition from the process. More often than not, this process translates into giving a handful of people too much say in deciding election outcomes. It has also resulted in fewer women having a chance to compete on an even playing field. An open, fair process combined with the critical need for campaign finance reform have to be implemented to stop a process that all too easily puts the power of many into the hands of a few, corrupting the basis of our fragile democracy.”

In 2000 Liz won a Democratic primary and narrowly lost to incumbent Republican Roy Goodman. The following year, Senator Goodman resigned mid-term in an effort orchestrated by the Republicans to put her at a disadvantage by virtue of the low turnout that is endemic in special elections. Krueger ran again in the February 2002 special election and won decisively.

“Women comprise over 50% of the population and vote in higher numbers than their male counterparts, but make up only 17% of the Congress. The special election process not only makes a farce of our democracy, but it uniquely discriminates against women. Yet another reason to dispense with it all together,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.

“I work every day to bring young people into the political process so they can help our city and state grow and thrive,” said DL21C Chairperson Elizabeth Caputo. “But NY’s special election system often appears to discourage public input and moves what should be democratically-made decisions behind closed doors. As a result, many promising young and/or first time candidates don’t have a chance to make their cases to voters. Further, as a woman running a large civic organization, I’m troubled about the findings that there is such underrepresentation of women selected to be candidates in special elections.”

According to a recent New York Post op-ed, “the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake notes, voters see women as less scandal-prone than men and more likely to have their priorities in order.”

But under current law, vacancies in the Senate and Assembly may be filled by partisan special elections, where party bosses can choose candidates without any public input. However, New York State election law also provides for the Governor to allow primaries when the vacancy occurs during the normal petition period.

Governor Cuomo could have allowed voters the chance to have primaries for the recent special elections, but chose not to do so. In a state legislature with over 95% incumbent re-election rate, this over reliance on special elections means many incumbents achieve office without being truly chosen by the public in a competitive primary and election.

“Party-based candidate selections is one of the remaining vestiges from an era of smoke filled rooms and total party control, and now we know that it has a discriminatory impact as well” said Samuels. “As a state and a people, we need to evolve away from this tired and anti-democratic political process. It’s time to end the backroom deal-making and inject some democracy into the candidate selection process.”

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