By-elections, also spelled bye-elections (Ireland only) (known as special elections in the United States and the Philippines, and bypolls in India), are used to fill elected offices that have become vacant between general elections.

In most cases these elections occur after the incumbent dies or resigns, but they also occur when the incumbent becomes ineligible to continue in office (because of a recall, ennoblement, criminal conviction, or failure to maintain a minimum attendance). Less commonly, these elections have been called when a constituency election is invalidated by voting irregularities.

In the United States, these contests have been called "special elections" because they do not always occur on Election Day like regular congressional elections. A 2016 study of special elections to the United States House of Representatives found "that while candidate characteristics affect special election outcomes, presidential approval is predictive of special election outcomes as well. Furthermore, we find that the effect of presidential approval on special election outcomes has increased in magnitude from 1995 to 2014, with the 2002 midterm representing an important juncture in the nationalization of special elections."[1]


The procedure for filling a vacant seat in the House of Commons of England was developed during the Reformation Parliament of the 16th century by Thomas Cromwell; previously a seat had remained empty upon the death of a member. Cromwell devised a new election that would be called by the king at a time of the king's choosing. This made it a simple matter to ensure the seat rewarded an ally of the crown.[2]

During the Parliaments of Charles II, which reached up to 18 years in length, by-elections were the primary means by which new members entered the House of Commons.[3]

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, Canada and Pakistan, as well as non-Commonwealth countries such as France.[4] In the UK a writ for a by-election must be issued within three months of a vacancy arising.[5]

In the United States, special elections are held when a seat in the House of Representatives, state legislature, or local legislature becomes vacant. At the federal level, the U.S. Constitution requires that vacancies in the House of Representatives be filled with a special election (unlike the Senate, where it is up to law of the state involved to determine how the vacancy is filled). In most cases where a vacancy is filled through a special election, a primary will also be held to determine which candidates will represent the major parties.

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 could be contested in the by-election.

Scotland and New Zealand still hold by-elections, despite having adopted the mixed-member proportional representation system, in which some members are chosen by party lists. In both countries, by-elections where voters elect their preferred candidate are only used to fill a vacancy in a constituency seat. For example, the death of Donald Dewar resulted in a by-election for the constituency of Glasgow Anniesland. If a vacancy arises from the death or resignation of a party list member, the next unelected candidate on the party list is offered the seat. If that candidate has died or declines the seat, it is offered to subsequent candidates on the list until one accepts the seat. For example, on the resignation of Darren Hughes in March 2011, Louisa Wall was elected after all the five candidates above her on the New Zealand Labour Party's list declined the seat.[6] 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:

  1. choosing from those losing candidates at the previous election who choose to contest the recount to fill the vacancy, as in Tasmania[7] or the Australian Capital Territory,[8]
  2. keeping the seat vacant until the next general election. This usually occurs if a vacancy arises shortly before a planned general election (within six months in New Zealand).
  3. nominating another candidate with the same affiliation as the former member – typically, in list systems, the next candidate on the party list.

For the Australian Senate (where each State forms a multi-seat constituency voting by single transferable vote), the State Parliament appoints a replacement; in 1977 a referendum amended the Constitution to require that the person appointed must belong to the same political party (if any) as the Senator originally elected to that seat. Those Australian states with an Upper House elected by PR-STV (NSW, Victoria and South Australia) copy the federal Senate model, except for Western Australia, which holds a recount of ballots, with sitting members retaining their seats.

Significance and consequences

By-elections can be crucial when the ruling party has only a small majority. In parliamentary systems, party discipline is often so strong that the governing party can only lose a vote of no confidence after losing enough by-elections for it to become a minority government. Examples are the Labour government of James Callaghan 1976–1979 and Conservative government of John Major 1992–1997. In the United States Senate, Scott Brown's election in 2010 ended the filibuster-proof supermajority formerly enjoyed by Democrats.

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 New Democratic Party to regain official party status with important results in terms of parliamentary privileges and funding.

Political scientists often caution against overinterpreting by-election results, which non-experts often take as a bellwether. The evidence suggests that whilst they have some predictive power (particularly with margin of victory relative to the districts' normal performance, rather than the win-loss record); other indicators generally provide stronger evidence, and the often small data set of by-elections per election cycle makes it worth extrapolating results cautiously.[9] Seats which have changed hands in "shock" by-elections also often revert to the former party in the next (or a subsequent) general election.

Indirect impact

By-election upsets can have a psychological impact by creating a sense of momentum for one party or a sense of impending defeat for a government. Deborah Grey's 1989 by-election victory in Beaver River was seen as evidence that the newly formed Reform Party of Canada would be a serious political contender and that it posed a serious political threat for the ruling Progressive Conservatives. It also gave important momentum to the new party. Similarly, the upset 1960 by-election victory of Walter Pitman in Peterborough as a "New Party" candidate was a significant boost for the movement to replace the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation with an unnamed "New Party" which would be integrated with the labour movement. Pitman's candidacy in a riding in which the CCF was traditionally weak was seen as a test of this concept and his upset victory convinced the CCF and the labour movement to launch the New Democratic Party (NDP). Gilles Duceppe's 1990 upset landslide by-election victory in Laurier—Sainte-Marie with 66% of the vote on behalf of the newly formed Bloc Québécois was the first electoral test for what was initially a loose parliamentary formation created two months earlier after several Quebec MPs defected from the Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties to protest the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and provided the first indication that the party could be a serious force in the province of Quebec. On the strength of the by-election victory, the BQ went on to be officially formed as a party in 1991 and to win 54 seats in the 1993 federal election, enough to form the Official Opposition.

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. In September 1984 the Leader of the Greater London Council Ken Livingstone and 3 other Labour councillors resigned and stood in simultaneous by-elections in an attempt to stage a mini-referendum on the Thatcher government's proposal to abolish the GLC. The effect of the manoeuvre was blunted when the Conservative Party refused to stand candidates against them, and the following year the GLC was abolished.[10]



In Australia, a by-election was held in Wentworth after the resignation of Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull had served as the Member for Wentworth since 2004, and as leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister of Australia since 2015 until his ousting two months before the date of the election, which triggered his resignation. Wentworth was considered an exceptionally safe seat for the Liberal Party, and had only ever been held by the Liberal Party or its predecessors since the division's creation in 1901. Former Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma was preselected as the Liberal Party's candidate for the by-election, but was upset by independent candidate Kerryn Phelps. The Liberal Party suffered a 19% two-candidate-preferred swing to Phelps, the largest by-election swing in Australian history. This loss also deprived the Liberal Party of its majority in federal Parliament, forcing them into a minority government.


In Canada, General Andrew McNaughton was appointed to Cabinet as Minister of Defence on November 1, 1944 without having a seat in parliament after his predecessor resigned during the Conscription Crisis of 1944. A by-election was arranged in Grey North which the opposition Progressive Conservative party contested. The major campaign issue became the government's policy of "limited conscription" during World War II which McNaughton supported and which the Conservatives counterposed with a call for "full conscription". McNaughton was upset in the February 5, 1945 by-election. As a result, with confidence in his government undermined, [[Prime Minister of Canada| William Lyon Mackenzie King called the 1945 federal election several weeks later when he had originally intended to wait until after the end of the war. McNaughton sought a seat in the federal election and resigned after he was again defeated.

In 1942, new Conservative leader Arthur Meighen sought to enter the Canadian House of Commons through a by-election in York South. His surprise defeat at the hand of Joseph Noseworthy of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation ended his political career, and may also have been a factor in the Conservative Party's decision to move to the left and rebrand itself the Progressive Conservative Party under Meighen's replacement. Noseworthy's victory was also a significant breakthrough for the CCF giving it credibility as a national party where it has previously been seen as a Western Canadian regional protest party.

In Canada, the most recent example of a cabinet minister appointed from outside parliament having to resign after losing a by-election was in 1975 when Minister of Communications Pierre Juneau was appointed to Pierre Trudeau's Liberal cabinet directly from the private sector and tried to enter parliament through a by-election in Hochelaga. Juneau was upset by the Progressive Conservative candidate and resigned from cabinet ten days after his by-election defeat.

In Ontario, John Tory, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario ran in a 2009 by-election in Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock, after he convinced one of his caucus members to step down, in hopes of re-entering the Ontario legislature. His by-election defeat resulted in his resignation as party leader.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, pro-democracy camp lost their majority status for the first time in the Geographical constituency part of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong in March 2018 Hong Kong by-elections. By-elections were held due to 6 pro-democracy lawmakers were disqualified by the High Court of Hong Kong during Oath-taking controversy. Pro-democracy camp was considered safe in de facto first past the post by-election because both pro-democracy camp and pro-Beijing camp would only nominate one candidate to fill in the by-election. However, pro-democracy camp lost twice in Kowloon West, which was considered as a safe seat for the pro-democracy camp.


In Ireland by-elections, a by-election held in Dublin South-West provided a very surprising upset. The Sinn Féin candidate, Cathal King, was the favourite to take the seat. Sinn Féin had done extremely well in the area during that year's local elections. Sinn Féin captured high percentages of the first preference vote across the constituency. However, the Anti-Austerity Alliance candidate, Paul Murphy, was elected on the eighth count. Despite Murphy having received a lower first preference total than Cathal King, he outperformed the Sinn Féin candidate in attracting transfers. Murphy then took his seat in the 31st Dáil. As a direct result of this defeat in the by-election, Sinn Féin hardened their stance against Irish Water and called for the complete abolition of water charges in Ireland.

United Kingdom

In 1965 the British Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker stood in the Leyton by-election for election to the UK Parliament, having been defeated in controversial circumstances in Smethwick at the previous year's general election. His appointment as a senior minister while not a member of either house of Parliament was against convention, and he therefore sought to regularise the position by standing in the first available by-election, which was at Leyton in January 1965. However a strong swing against Labour resulted in Gordon Walker's defeat: as a result, he resigned as Foreign Secretary.

United States

A Massachusetts special Senate election held in January 2010 produced a significant upset when Republican Scott Brown won the United States Senate seat formerly held for 47 years by Democrat stalwart Ted Kennedy.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Knotts, H. Gibbs; Ragusa, Jordan M. (2016-01-02). "The Nationalization of Special Elections for the U.S. House of Representatives". Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties. 26 (1): 22–39. doi:10.1080/17457289.2015.1063497. ISSN 1745-7289.
  2. ^ Jennifer Loach. Parliament Under the Tudors. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1990. p. 36
  3. ^ By-Elections in British Politics. UCL Press, London. 1997 pg. 1
  4. ^ For Italy, where it was provided by electoral law up to 2006, see (in Italian) Giampiero Buonomo, I subentri nelle assemblee parlamentari, Quaderni costituzionali, 2006.
  5. ^ "By-elections". UK Parliament. Retrieved 2016-09-06.
  6. ^ "Louisa Wall back in Parliament". The New Zealand Herald. 6 April 2011. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
  7. ^ "Tasmania's Hare-Clark Electoral System". Archived from the original on 2011-04-23.
  8. ^ "Casual Vacancies in the Legislative Assembly".
  9. ^ Nate Silver (September 13, 2011). "A Guide to Cutting Through Special-Election Spin". FiveThirtyEight.
  10. ^ Rallings, Colin; Thrasher, Michael (1997). Local Elections in Britain. London: Routledge. p. 172. ISBN 9780203412756.
  11. ^ New York Times: G.O.P. Senate Victory Stuns Democrats. November 19, 2010.

External links

All India Trinamool Congress

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Cultural and Educational Panel

The Cultural and Educational Panel (Irish: An Rolla Saíochta agus Oideachais) is one of five vocational panels which together elect 43 of the 60 members of Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the Oireachtas (the legislature of Ireland). The Cultural and Educational Panel elects five senators, at least two of whom must come from the Oireachtas members' nominees and another three must come from the nominating bodies' nominees.

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Hillingdon London Borough Council elections

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List of Dáil by-elections

This is a list of by-elections to Dáil Éireann, the house of representatives of the Oireachtas, the Irish legislature. By-elections in Ireland occur to fill vacant seats which can be caused by the death, resignation or expulsion of a sitting Teachta Dála (member of parliament).

There have been 131 by-elections since 1923, to fill 133 vacancies. 92 of these were caused by the death of a sitting Teachta Dála (TD). There were seven by-elections during the lifetime of the 31st Dáil. There were no by-elections during the 3rd, 7th, 9th, 11th, 22nd, 25th and 26th Dála. The longest period without a by-election was almost 10 years between 1984 and 1994. The largest number of by-elections on one day was on 11 March 1925, when seven constituencies filled nine vacancies caused by the National Party's split from Cumann na nGaedheal. Those seven by-elections included two which filled two vacancies, via the single transferable vote. All the other by-elections have used its single-winner analogue, the alternative vote.

Twenty-two TDs were first elected at a by-election and never subsequently re-elected at a general election. The only person twice elected at by-elections was Thomas Hennessy.

List of United Kingdom by-elections (2010–present)

This is a list of parliamentary by-elections in the United Kingdom since 2010, with the names of the incumbent and victor and their respective parties. Where seats changed political party at the election, the result is highlighted: blue for a Conservative gain, red for a Labour gain, orange for a Liberal Democrat gain, purple for a UK Independence Party (UKIP) gain and grey for any other gain.

List of ministerial by-elections to the Parliament of the United Kingdom

Ministerial by-elections to the Parliament of the United Kingdom at Westminster were held from 1801 to the 1920s when a member of parliament (MP) was appointed as a minister in the government. Unlike most Westminster by-elections, ministerial by-elections were often a formality, uncontested by opposition parties. Re-election was required under the Succession to the Crown Act 1707. This was in line with the principle established in 1624 that accepting an office of profit from the Crown would precipitate resignation from the House, with the option of standing for re-election. Typically a minister sought re-election in the same constituency he had just vacated, but occasionally contested another seat which was also vacant. In 1910 The Times newspaper noted that the relevant Act had been passed in the reign of Queen Anne "to prevent the Court from swamping the House of Commons with placemen and pensioners", and described the process as "anomalous" and "indefensible" in the 20th century. The Re-Election of Ministers Act 1919 ended the necessity to seek re-election within nine months of a general election, and the Re-Election of Ministers Act (1919) Amendment Act 1926 ended the practice in all other cases.

Northern Maori

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Official Monster Raving Loony Party

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Oxfordshire County Council elections

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Seanad Éireann

Seanad Éireann ( (listen); Senate of Ireland) is the upper house of the Oireachtas (the Irish legislature), which also comprises the President of Ireland and Dáil Éireann (the lower house).

It is commonly called the Seanad or Senate and its members senators (seanadóirí in Irish, singular: seanadóir). Unlike Dáil Éireann, it is not directly elected but consists of a mixture of members chosen by various methods. Its powers are much weaker than those of the Dáil and it can only delay laws with which it disagrees, rather than veto them outright. It has been located, since its establishment, in Leinster House.

Social Democratic Party (UK)

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Tower Hamlets London Borough Council elections

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Two-party-preferred vote

In Australian politics, the two-party-preferred vote (TPP or 2PP) is the result of an election or opinion poll after preferences have been distributed to the highest two candidates, who in some cases can be independents. For the purposes of TPP, the Liberal/National Coalition is usually considered a single party, with Labor being the other major party. Typically the TPP is expressed as the percentages of votes attracted by each of the two major parties, e.g. "Coalition 45%, Labor 55%", where the values include both primary votes and preferences. The TPP is an indicator of how much swing has been attained/is required to change the result, taking into consideration preferences, which may have a significant effect on the result.

The TPP assumes a two-party system, i.e. that after distribution of votes from less successful candidates, the two remaining candidates will be from the two major parties. However, in some electorates this is not the case. The two-candidate-preferred vote (TCP) is the result after preferences have been distributed, using instant-runoff voting, to the final two candidates, regardless of which party the candidates represent. For electorates where the two candidates are from the major parties, the TCP is also the TPP. For electorates where these two candidates are not both from the major parties, preferences are notionally distributed to the two major parties to determine the TPP. In this case the TPP differs from the TCP, and is not informative. TPP results above seat-level, such as a national or statewide TPP, are also informative only and have no direct effect on the election outcome.

The full allocation of preferences under instant-runoff voting is used in the lower houses of the Federal, Queensland, Victorian, Western Australian, South Australian, and Northern Territory parliaments, as well as the upper house of Tasmania. The New South Wales lower house uses optional-preference instant runoff voting – with some votes giving limited or no preferences, TPP/TCP is not as meaningful. TPP/TCP does not occur in the Tasmanian lower house or the Australian Capital Territory due to a different system altogether, the Hare–Clark proportional voting system. Aside from Tasmania, TPP/TCP is not used in any other upper houses in Australia, with most using the group ticket single transferable proportional voting system.

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