By Nicholas Williams
Nicholas Williams is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences from Los Angeles, California who plans on majoring in Political Science and History.
As the 2020 election draws to an end and results come in, one outcome is clear: there will be two runoff elections for Georgia’s seats in the United States Senate in January, 2021 . One of these runoff elections, between incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler and the Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock, is a runoff for what is known as a “special” election. But what makes special elections special?
First, it is important to note the two other main kinds of elections: primary elections and general elections. In primary elections, voters express their preferences for who will compete in the general election. In the United States, this is often done via “closed” or “semi-closed” primaries, where voters choose candidates affiliated with a party to advance to the general election . The winner of the general election then officially wins the office for which he is running.
Special elections can occur at the federal legislative level as well as the state level. At the federal level, they can occur for a seat in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. A special election is called when either a representative or a senator is unable to finish her term. The governor of the state where the vacancy has occurred then sets a date for the special election in accordance with state law . The special election is held on a date in which there would otherwise not be an election for that seat, and it is not for a full term.
The 2020 Georgia special election revolves around a Senate seat held by former Senator Johnny Isakson, who retired in 2019 due to health concerns . When a senator vacates his office, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution allows state legislatures to give governors the power to appoint a replacement senator until either the end of the former senator’s term or until a special election occurs . Georgia Governor Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler to the seat, setting up an election on November 3, 2020 that pitted Loeffler against a slew of Republican and Democratic candidates. Georgia law specifically states that a Senate candidate must receive 50% of the vote to win, or else there is a later election held between the top two candidates. This is known as a runoff election. Warnock and Loeffler received the first and second most votes, respectively, but neither candidate received over 50% of the vote, resulting in a runoff in January. Even though the initial contest coincided with a November general election, the individual race is still a special election because it would not have occurred had former Senator Isakson not resigned. In addition, Warnock and Loeffler are not competing for a six-year term; instead, they are competing to finish the last two years of Isakson’s term, which began in 2017. In 2022, there will be a regular Georgia Senate election for a full six-year term for Isakson’s former seat.
Politically, special elections are quite unusual. Because special elections are often not held on the same date as other elections, they often have low voter turnout. For example, there was a special election on May 12, 2020 in California’s 25th congressional district to finish the remainder of former Representative Katie Hill’s term in the House of Representatives . A total of 174,388 people voted in the election, even though 245,022 people voted in the district’s congressional race in the 2018 midterms . Republican Mike Garcia ended up winning this special election, despite the fact that Hill, a Democrat, won her race for the same seat by over 8 points in 2018.
This relates to another quirk of special elections, in that the winner can often be unexpected. Republicans can win in very Democratic states and districts, and Democrats can win in traditionally Republican states and districts. A recent example of this occurred when Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore in a special election for a Senate seat in solidly Republican Alabama in December, 2017 . Despite Jones’s 2017 victory, he lost by roughly 20 points to Republican candidate Tommy Tuberville for a full six-year term in November, 2020 . Another example of a special election candidate defying his state’s traditional political leanings occurred when Republican Scott Brown beat Democrat Martha Cokely in liberal Massachusetts in a 2010 special election for one of Massachusetts's Senate seats . Brown, like Jones, would go down in his next election, losing to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in 2012 . The propensity of such underdogs to win is often attributed to voters of the party that is out of power at the federal level being more motivated to win an election . This gives special elections the potential to shock the political world.
Special elections are an unusual feature of the U.S. electoral system. Officially, an election is “special” when it is held on a date that it usually would not be held, and the winner of the election holds the seat for less than the full length of a term. Unofficially, they are special due to their propensity for low turnout and choosing winners that would most likely not win in a general election. The Georgia special runoff election in particular is also very important, because they are likely to decide which party controls the Senate, which could have major ramifications on law and potentially the Supreme Court for decades to come.
 Kilgore, Ed. “Senate Control To Be Decided By Two Georgia Runoff Elections in January.” New York. November 5, 2020. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/11/georgia-runoff-elections-will-determine-senate-control.html
 “Primaries.” FairVote. Accessed November 16, 2020. https://www.fairvote.org/primaries#open_and_closed_primaries
 “Vacancies in the United States Senate.” National Conference of State Legislatures. Accessed November 16, 2020. https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/vacancies-in-the-united-states-senate637302453.aspx
 Nadler, Ben and Andrew Taylor. “Kemp expected to pick newcomer to succeed Isakson in Senate.” Associated Press. December 2, 2019. https://apnews.com/article/31e6f635d5fc4271b3b083a6bf2eeffd
 “Appointed Senators.” United States Senate. Accessed November 16, 2020. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/senators_appointed.htm
 “Final Official Election Results - Congressional District 25.” California Secretary of State. Accessed November 16, 2020. https://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/prior-elections/special-elections/2019-cd25/official-results-general
 “California Election Results 2018.” Politico. Accessed November 16, 2020. https://www.politico.com/election-results/2018/california/
 Block, Matthew, Nate Cohn, Josh Katz, and Jasmine Lee. “Alabama Election Results: Doug Jones Defeats Roy Moore in U.S. Senate Race.” The New York Times. December 12, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/elections/results/alabama-senate-special-election-roy-moore-doug-jones
 “Alabama U.S. Senate Election Results.” The New York Times. Accessed November 16, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/results-alabama-senate.html
 Burns, Alexander. “Brown pulls off historic upset.” Politico. January 19, 2010. https://www.politico.com/story/2010/01/brown-pulls-off-historic-upset-031674
 Camia, Catalina. “Elizabeth Warren wins Mass. Senate race.” USA Today. November 6, 2012. https://www.usatoday.com/story/onpolitics/2012/11/06/warren-brown-massachusetts-senate-election/1680699/
 Bresnahan, John and Elana Schor. “How Republicans are experiencing 2010 in reverse.” Politico. December 13, 2017. https://www.politico.com/story/2017/12/13/republicans-alabama-2010-scott-brown-295471
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.