Cunningham by-election, 2002

By-election

[bahy-i-lek-shuhn]
A by-election or bye-election (called special election in the United States) is an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly-scheduled elections. Usually this occurs when the incumbent has died or resigned, but it may also occur when the incumbent becomes ineligible to continue in office, for example because of a recall or a sufficiently serious criminal conviction. Historically, members of some parliaments were required to seek re-election upon being appointed to a ministerial post. The subsequent by-elections were termed ministerial by-elections.

In single member constituencies

By-elections are held in most nations that elect their parliaments through single-member constituencies, whether with or without a runoff round. This includes most Commonwealth countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, as well as France and Pakistan. In the United States they are called special elections, and are held when a seat in Congress, a state legislature or at the local level has become vacant.

In multi-member constituencies

When one seat in a proportional representation constituency becomes vacant, the consequences vary. For example, a by-election may be held to fill just the vacancy or all the seats in the constituency become up for grabs in the by-election held.

Scotland and New Zealand still hold by-elections, despite having adopted the additional member system, in which members are also chosen by party lists. The Republic of Ireland holds by-elections despite electing members in multi-member constituencies by the single transferable vote.

Alternatives to holding a by-election include recounting the original votes while disregarding the candidate who has withdrawn as in Tasmania or the Australian Capital Territory, keeping the seat vacant until the next general election or nominating another candidate with the same affiliation as the one whose seat has become vacant – typically, in list systems, the next candidate on the party list.

Consequences

The vast majority of by-elections are unimportant and voter turnouts are seldom comparable with general elections. The governing party normally has a solid cushion so that losing a handful of seats would not affect their position. Because by-elections usually have little influence on the general governance, voters feel freer to elect smaller fringe parties. Parties on both the far right-wing and the far left-wing tend to do better in by-elections than in general elections.

However, by-elections can become crucial when the ruling party has only a small margin. In parliamentary systems, party discipline is strong enough so that the one common scenario for a vote of no confidence to occur is after the governing party loses enough by-elections to become a minority government. A UK example was the Labour government of James Callaghan 1976-79.

By-elections can also be important if a minority party needs to gain one or more seats in order to gain official party status or the balance of power in a minority or coalition situation. For example, Andrea Horwath's win in an Ontario provincial by-election in 2004 allowed the Ontario NDP to regain official party status with important results in terms of parliamentary privileges and funding.

By-elections may occur singly, or in small bunches, especially if the authority responsible for calling them has discretion over the timing and can procrastinate. They are sometimes bunched to save money as holding multiple by-elections is likely to cost more than holding a by-election to fill the vacancies all at once. In Canada, in 1978, 15 by-elections were held on a single date, restoring the House of Commons to 264 members. The media called it a "mini-election", a test of the Liberal government's popularity with a general election due in less than a year. The 15 districts stretched from Newfoundland to British Columbia, and produced some unexpected results, for example, an NDP candidate winning in Newfoundland for the first time.

Party leaders and media commentators often point to by-election victories as important signals, but very often by-elections hinge far more on local issues and the charisma of the candidates (especially under single-seat constituency systems) than on national issues or how the voters feel about the governing party. Nonetheless it can be shown historically that a main opposition party which performs consistently poorly in by-elections is unlikely to be a serious contender for power at the subsequent general election.

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