Popular versus Party Politics
According to a recently completed census, in 1987 there were 38,933 general-purpose local governments in the United States. If conservative assumptions are made about the size of the councils or boards of these governments, and the sex and average ages of their members, it appears likely that about two thousand vacancies occur in local elective offices annually just as the consequence of the death of incumbents. 1 Additionally, of course, vacancies arise because local elected officials resign for personal or professional reasons in the course of their terms, or are removed for cause.
Clearly, although it is a subject that has not received much systematic attention, processes for filling vacancies have considerable aggregate impact on "who governs" America's cities, counties, towns, and villages. Any method for determining when vacancies exist in elective offices, and for filling them, must balance the fundamental need for legitimacy that can arise out of a democratic election with the parallel need to sustain a fully representative and effectively functioning government. In fact, as this study of New York City reveals, the methods used for maintaining and transferring political power outside the normal, scheduled electoral process are a window into the inner politics of the locality.
An examination of these methods thus offers a glimpse of an "insider game" that is most revealing of the values, incentive systems, and power relationships that are defining daily local political life. Since the person chosen to fill a vacancy gains the advantage of incumbency in the next general election, methods for filling vacancies are especially significant. Alterations in these methods therefore have an impact on the incentive system for those ambitious for public office. Ultimately, such changes may lead to significant alterations in the "way things work" in local politics.
Although the New York City charter provisions for filling City Council and borough-presidency vacancies have not been a focal point of public debate, they have been important for political party strength and public careers in the city