Special Elections Explainer

With the resignation of Representative Trent Franks, constituents of Arizona have found themselves entering the exciting and unorthodox realm of special elections. Given the irregularity with which such elections take place, general confusion about the process for filling sudden legislative vacancies seems to abound. Though relatively similar, Arizona’s procedures governing legislative vacancies (along with the texts from which these procedures arise ) are different depending on the office that has to be filled.

Vacancies at the Federal Level

In Arizona, congressional vacancies that occur less than six months before the next general election are filled during the election cycle, with the winner completing the remainder of the unexpired time. In the event a general election is not scheduled for more than six months after vacancy, the rules governing replacement turn on whether the vacated seat is in the House or Senate. If the empty seat is in the House, the governor must announce dates for a special primary election and special general election within 72 hours of the post’s resignation, with candidates having thirty days from the governor’s announcement to file nominating papers and petitions. This policy comes directly from the Article 1 Section 2 of the US Constitution, which directs a state’s executive authority to issue “writs of election” subsequent to a congressional vacancy; the specific timeline, on the other hand, comes from Section 16-222 of the Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS). If the seat is in the Senate, the governor must appoint a qualified replacement from the previous seat holder’s political party (either Republican or Democrat) to serve until the next general election, a provision also stipulated by Section 16-222 of the ARS.

Vacancies at the State Level

All procedures governing vacancies in statewide and legislative offices come from the ARS Section 16-230 and 41-1202, respectively. In the event that a statewide office becomes vacant, the governor must appoint a qualified replacement from the previous officeholder’s party to fill the remainder of the term until the next general election. However, if the vacancy occurs less than two years into the officeholder’s four-year-term, a primary election shall be held to determine candidates for competition in the subsequent general election, with the winning candidate serving the remainder of the unexpired term. The same mechanism applies to filling countywide office vacancies, however, with the respective county’s board of supervisors assuming or deciding replacement responsibilities rather than the governor. For vacancies in the state legislature, the process is slightly more complex. When such vacancy occurs, the secretary of state notifies the chair of the previous officeholder’s party of the vacancy. In other words, the political party committee of the last incumbent submits a list to the board of county supervisors who must then choose the new member from the list. Within three business days of this notice, the chairperson is responsible for organizing a meeting with all their party’s elected precinct committee members from the previous officeholder’s legislative district to nominate three qualified candidates to fill the vacancy, all of whom must be from the previous officeholder’s party and legislative district. The party chairperson then forwards this list to the board of supervisors of the previous officeholder’s county, who have ultimate discretion in choosing a qualified replacement from these three choices. In the event that the committee members fail to submit a list of candidates within twenty-one days of notice by the secretary of state, if the vacancy occurs outside the regular legislative or five days during the regular legislative session, the board of supervisors for the previous officeholder’s county is responsible for assembling a citizen’s panel to submit to the board of supervisors a list of three qualified candidates within seven days, from which the board then chooses a replacement.